In the early days you often felt as though you were drowning. Inky darkness lapped at you from all directions as you struggled toward the distant shore. With one arm you held your young daughter, treading furiously to keep her face above water as you choked and gasped for breath, your own head intermittently plunging beneath the surface.
Back then the waves moved restlessly around you, threatening to take you into their depths. Terra firma seemed so far away, and though the water was cold and black and you were very much afraid, there was no other option – you had to swim.
From where you stand now, over two years from the finalization of the divorce, it seems surreal to glance back upon that bleakness and imagine yourself there, barely visible in the churning water. A shiver runs up your spine as if to remind you that it really wasn’t all that long ago.
You’re having one of those moments, an episode where the scene blurs around the edges and you seem to exist somewhere in the ether between what has been and what presently is. These interludes are like an unexpected guest that comes to call, plunging you back in time whether you want to go or not. They show up less and less often, though the experience is still as poignant as ever.
You recall with clarity having to calm yourself with carefully measured breaths, how easy it was to become disoriented in the vast openness, and the impossibly slow progress toward dry land. Although you are surrounded by scattered clusters of people, they resemble the faded backdrop of a watercolour painting.
It’s your daughter’s seventh birthday party. You decided to hold the celebration at one of the city’s largest bowladromes. It made sense – you were given access to two lanes, and a private party room where they served pizza and pop at a predetermined time. All you had to do was send invitations, show up with a cake and decorations, then wrangle a group of giggling girls for two hours. Easy peasy.
From the faraway place you pseudo-inhabit, where everything moves at a slower fuzzied tempo, you can hear the squeals from the gaggle of second graders in your ensemble. Their excited screams reverberate at what you know must be a deafening pitch, surely drowning out the peripheral sound even in the large and highly insulated subterranean chamber. Strangely, you can hardly hear them.
Absentmindedly, you urge the girls to unwedge themselves from between a section of padded seats, to get up off the floor. Stop chasing each other. Please, quiet down. This is the autopilot that sustained you all those months ago, familiar as a worn winter glove, though not necessarily something you want to have to wear.
From his seat next to your daughter, your ex-husband looks to you. He smiles as he playfully shields his ears with his hands. He instructs the set of twins to stay in the group area, reminds your daughter that it’s her turn, and re-counts the girls in your party to ensure no one has wandered off. You realize that the two of you are working seamlessly in tandem.
Your daughter gets her first strike and you know that the exploding cheers have reached an outrageous volume, no doubt incurring the warning glances of fellow patrons. But to you the sound is muffled, far off.
And then she comes into focus behind him. Your daughter – the only thing you can see with any degree of clarity. The two of them are layered in perspective, two parts of the same moving picture. She laughs and twirls wildly in place, engulfed in a bright throng of friends chanting her name in unison.
A sense of pride washes over you, so powerful that you have to place one hand on a nearby railing to steady yourself. He stands and immerses himself in the bubbling fountain of youth to pat her shoulder, then plants a high-five on her raised open palm.
“Good job, buddy!” You see him say, more than hear.
You watch their hands meet for a brief moment as the surrounding images further smear together, and muse how they have the same square nail beds; such similarly shaped hands. Many things about them are the same. She is as much him as she is you – arguably the best parts of each.
To see them both so jubilant makes your heart swell to the extent that it aches. You rally to get back to the present moment, struggle to latch onto something to pull you out of this strange alternate reality. But the days and nights of treading water are so available, so palpable; thick and seemingly all around you, they have bled into your here and now.
Silently, you give up the ghost and decide to pay homage to the determined strokes that brought you here. You already know that this is the antidote, and it will only take a moment. Settling into a plastic chair, you let the chaos surrounding you fade further still, and allow yourself to drift back to a time when your inner experience was occupied by a desperate need to stay afloat.
An interesting thing happens when a marriage ends. The people who stood by you all those years ago – when you wore that over-the-top designer dress and spoke heartfelt words of promise – they divide. Some urge you not to quit. A select few tell you to run for your life, while still others seem ambivalent. Your mom tells you that you have to stay in it for your daughter. You tell her she’s the reason that you can’t.
After everyone in your life has said their piece, whether solicited by you or otherwise, you decide how to go about what you have to do. And once you’ve decided, once the space between your head and your heart finally meld in a powerful and unequivocal understanding, it’s time to act. You are on the precipice and there is nothing left to do but descend.
Your friends and family choose their allegiance: those who respect your decision and those who don’t. A line is drawn – in sand for some, carved in granite for others – but it’s a line and it is drawn none the less. People begin to drop out of your life at an astonishing rate. You feel a part of your identity, or at least who you thought you were, crumble around you.
Supporters on each side suit up for battle because their instinct is to protect their designated party. Behind closed doors they sharpen their tongues, rehearse the war cries they will spiel at your helm. Deep down you know that you don’t want to fight, but no one wants to hear that.
No, these people want to see bloodshed. They have a vested interest in this relationship and they want their just returns. If they can’t see you ride off into the sunset together, like in some Hollywood movie, they’re going to bear witness to your burning each other down.
In spite of this you try to set the pace, lead by example – which is difficult because you know that on some level he probably hates you. It isn’t easy because you’re hurting too. Intuitively you know that in trying to be kind and fair you’re going against the trend, but it’s the only thing you know to do.
You tell him to take the house if he wants it, and to take whatever furniture he needs. The two of you divide up your mutual possessions, split the marital property. You agree to pay half of your mutual debt, on top of the house payment and bills that you can just barely afford on your own. Your parents tell you you’re being a fool, that you’re going to be financially ruined.
They take your dog to stay with them because he is too much to manage in your new life as a single parent with a full-time job, and they know it will kill you to give him up. As you drive down the dirt road leaving their home in the country, you see him in the rear view mirror. He runs after you for a time. Then he stops, confused. You feel like you don’t have a friend in the world. You grip the wheel tighter.
Separation anxiety nearly eats you alive. The fact that you made this choice is a moot consideration because you still feel like your arm has been cut off each time something pertinent comes to mind and you instinctively reach to dial your ex’s number. It stings to realize you can’t do that anymore. You regard the phone as though it is an alien object. You feel very much alone.
Things get pretty ugly for a while. The two of you circle each other like dogs even though you still don’t want to fight. People tell you you’re making a mistake – that you should go for sole custody. So far as you can see, there’s no reason for that. Little girls need their fathers. It will get better, you tell yourself.
You’re resolute to take the higher ground, though it gets more difficult. You find yourself protecting this notion from the amassing naysayers, and you protect him, too. After all, he is the person you once turned to and the father of your child. Eventually you take to isolation because you just don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Fuck what anyone thinks. You stay the course, put your daughter first. You sit and cry on the kitchen floor during the nights when she’s not with you because you’ve never been away from her for a week at a time. But this is the way it is now.
You insist on filing the paperwork yourself. You’re savvy enough and hiring lawyers would be a huge waste of money. The two of you exchange drafts and it doesn’t take long until you’ve reached an agreement.
Time goes by and you all adjust to your new routine. You begin to focus on yourself, like you said you would. You start doing things to improve your life. He does his own thing too, and you only really speak to each other when it is a conversation involving your daughter. You’re still swimming, but the sky has brightened and you’ve developed a rhythm. You feel like you might just make it.
For the most part people seem to have forgotten about the show they came to see. They’ve lost interest – nothing to see really, and so they move along. When people ask, you say that things are going pretty well, and it’s true.
The two of you practice the right of first refusal, helping each other when you’re in a childcare jam, almost eliminating the need for babysitters altogether. Your daughter is beaming, flourishing while spending equal time between the two of you. It is as though she gets both of your best efforts, and you smile at this. She seems happier than ever and very well-adjusted. And so it goes.
Then one day, your feet touch bottom when an envelope arrives in the mail. The divorce has been granted. You hold the contents in your hands, expecting something pivotal to happen, but the time for emotional release has long since passed. It’s just papers stapled together in a stack, signatures and the declaration of the judge.
As though a shroud has been lifted, you and your newly ex-husband are suddenly able to joke and laugh, and you try to help each other out when you can. It’s not unlike something bordering on friendship, and it works.
Soon you can see water foaming along the shore right in front of you. The tide pushes and pulls at you. You’re exhausted, but the joy and relief to feel something solid underfoot propels you onward. You emerge from the water and collapse on all fours onto the wet sand, your daughter easing off your aching back.
You sense that on another shore, perhaps not so far away, he is finding his own footing, in his own way. And you wish him well.
Just as quickly as the spell came over you, you’re jolted back into the present moment. You look around the crowded bowling alley, at the little girls swirling before you like silly, colourful fish. You are relieved to notice that the sharp edges have returned and that time has resumed its normal speed.
Your daughter skips to your side, hair bouncing around her sweet face. She grasps your hand and asks, “Is it time for cake?”
You stand and signal to her father that you’re going to ready the party room. He nods and takes a seat, gesturing for the girls to settle once more.
“Yes, honey,” you reply. “It’s time.”