The end began with a photograph.
Poking its worn corner from beneath the mousepad, the picture would have been easy to miss. I wasn’t looking for anything more than abandoned dishes in my husband’s basement music studio when I found it.
I scooped up a cocoa-crusted mug with my middle finger, then checked the floor beside his couch. There was, surprisingly, nothing more to add to the load of dishes soaking in the sink upstairs. None of the usual clutter. At this rate, I thought, I might have the chance to get some reading in during Audrey’s afternoon nap. Too many times the opportunity to read slipped away —Audrey would wake up, Stuart would be home from kindergarten, and I would have barely pulled my book from the shelf. I started reading Angela’s Ashes six months before, but hadn’t managed to get even halfway through.
Scanning his desk for any stray dishes, the dog-eared photograph waved at me, tousled by the circulating fan Ryan used to prevent dust from settling on his prized music and computer equipment. I watched as it fluttered, worn and creased, a tiny triangle beckoning me. Curiosity nibbled at me. The picture had obviously been tucked under the mousepad for easy retrieval, its edges smudged gray from frequent admiration. Cocoa mug still dangling from my finger, I slid the 4-by-6-inch glossy from its home, half-expecting and fully hoping to see our young children’s faces. We had boxes of photos developed at the local Walgreens, scores of photos of Stuart alone and now with the sister he’d waited so long for. But it was not my children’s faces that looked back at me.
In the photo my husband stood among friends outside the front doors of Ground Kontrol, a grown-up video arcade in downtown Portland. I recognized a few faces—our neighbor Scott, Ryan’s bass-playing friend Nicholas, and Sophie Kate, the 16-year-old who played tambourine in their garage-bound band. I scanned the faces, perplexed by this outing I didn’t remember.
When was the last time he’d been to Ground Kontrol? Who were these people he was hanging out with?
My breath froze in my throat as I followed the curve of my husband’s arms. He had wrapped them tightly around the tambourine-player’s slim waist, pulling her lanky teenage body close enough for his chin to rest on her shoulder. His smile, wide and genuine, made the truth- telling dimple sink into his left cheek. I couldn’t stop looking, wondering how long it had been since I’d seen him smile like that.
I inhaled slowly until my lungs could take take no more and collapsed, vacuumed empty by the realization of what I was seeing. The mug shattered across the basement’s concrete floor as my legs buckled beneath me. I sunk to my knees, holding tightly to the photo in my shuddering hand. Pressing it against the cool floor, I hunched over the image like a microscope and meticulously inspected the cuddling pair. I recognized her as the tambourine player in Ryan’s band, though we had never formally met. When he had started his garage band a few months before, he made it clear that I was not to bother them during practice. I willingly obeyed, sneaking peeks from our upstairs windows as his bandmates filtered in and out of the garage. I had seen her heading into the garage, but that was as close as we ever were.
Now I sat scrutinizing every part of her. Her chin-length hair was coiled and auburn like a teenage Annie; she even had the requisite freckles, spotlights of her youth. Pressed next to hers, my husband’s face was already aging. At 29 his eyes were starting to crinkle at the corners, whispers of crow’s feet to come. His hairline already receding.
I tried to recall a time in the past weeks when he might have gone downtown with friends, but couldn’t. Then I remembered that the arcade had moved from downtown to Northwest Portland months ago. I squeezed my eyes closed, hoping to keep the truth away. This coupling wasn’t new.
I slid the picture carefully back in place. All the anger and hurt and sadness funneled into my jaw, clenched so tightly it would ache in the morning.
I would not mention seeing the photo. I would pretend that I was clueless, unable to face the possibilities this single image entailed. What good would it do, I argued with myself, to confront him? I couldn’t change him, I knew that. It was my job to be the good Mormon wife and mother and I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize that. This was up to him. I had long ago abdicated the privilege of making the decisions for our family. The photo had not changed that. Instead, it showed that I had failed to be and do the things that had been expected of me. If anything was going to change, I reasoned, it had to be me. Maybe if I loved him more, he would change his mind. Maybe if I stayed quiet and was extra devoted in my wifely duties, he would love me more and stop whatever it was he was doing with her. I could string together some version of a marriage, I was sure of it. I just needed to prove that I was enough of whatever he wanted me to be to keep him.
Starting that week, I made homemade bread before each band practice so the aroma of love would sift down and distract him from her. I drank water and refused to eat more than an apple each day, hoping he’d be drawn in by my slimmer thighs, the ribs that could be felt through my tees.
I wanted it all to be a misunderstanding. He was taking the kids’ car seats out because he needed the space, I told myself. For what, I had no idea, but it was better than the reality that he took them out to hide the fact that he had children. When I pointed out his empty ring finger, he reasoned that the wedding ring got in the way of playing his new 12-string guitar and I wasn’t willing to argue. I wanted to know if the well-worn band tees he’d started wearing, that fit him so snugly, had once been hers. But I was afraid of the truth. Each week, when he begged out of Sunday dinner with his family, I wondered if he was out with his young lover while his children and I were cross-examined by his extended family: Why wasn’t Ryan at church today? Is he ill? Does he need a blessing?
Instead of telling them that what was supposed to be an eternal marriage was falling apart, I feigned ignorance. But they must have known something wasn’t right.
His parents had known me since Ryan and I met in the halls at church when we were just 15. They had been there nine years ago when he and I knelt facing each other across a white altar, pledging our love in the newly built Mormon temple. Mirrors behind us reflected each other into eternity, symbolizing the span of our commitment. Holding hands, we had promised to love and support each other forever. We agreed to follow all of God’s commandments and to never break the vows of abstinence the LDS Church is both jeered and respected for. With a few brief words from the cleric, we were sealed to each other as husband and wife for all eternity. Ryan held my gaze and pledged to choose the right in all he did as a husband and father. More importantly, I thought, he promised God.
But over the summer of 1999, those vows faded into a distant memory. He jokingly admitted one night, long after the kids were in bed and we watched television from opposite ends of the couch, that he thought he was falling in love with Sophie Kate. I curled my legs beneath me, leaning hard against the arm of the couch. “Oh yeah?” was all I could muster. I stared at the ceiling to dam the urgent tears. I listened silently, crumbling, as he told me how he hadn’t meant for it to happen, about the interests they shared and how she’d joked about him kissing like an old man.
Each confession sliced through me, but I swallowed back the urge to scream and cry and pound my fists into his chest like an angry toddler. I would be strong and not give him the joy of seeing me break. I wouldn’t fall apart; I couldn’t. I had to think of our kids, our family, but I knew there was no going back to a happily married couple we had once been.
That’s all I wanted, though: to be what we once were. I wanted to turn back the clock to being 17-year-olds together, running through his grandma’s filbert orchard at the edge of town. I wished with all my might that he would return to leaving me love notes on the fridge. I pictured him in the hospital holding Audrey, just minutes old and still covered in the white glaze of birth. I remembered how he ran behind Stuart’s bike, holding tight then letting go as our son pedaled his tiny two-wheeler. Every cell ached to be there again, to not be here.
Now mostly-empty vodka bottles were abandoned beneath our daughter’s high chair, and jewelry boxes with dried ’shrooms were left on the coffee table. I spent my days keeping the kids away from his debauchery and my nights wondering if there was anything I could do to fix it. I’d dropped thirty pounds in two months and was fanatical about keeping the toys picked up, but it hadn’t made any difference. He was keeping acid tabs in the freezer and often staying out until sunrise. The pungent smell of alcohol on his breath and cigarettes on his clothes forced me to face the reality that this was much more than a momentary lapse of judgment.
On a late August afternoon, three months after finding the photograph, we took one of our familiar drives among the quasi-mansions in the West Hills. Our children—6-year-old Stuart and 1-year-old Audrey—had been lulled to sleep in the backseat, and I finally mustered the courage to ask him to choose. His hands tightened around the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. He looked at me, his ice-blue eyes not quite making contact with mine, then turned back to stare at the winding road ahead.
“I know what I’m supposed to say, what I’m supposed to do.”
Then say it, I thought, just do it. Choose the right, it’s what we were always taught. Tell me you love me, that you want to change and go back to how things used to be. Do what you promised to do.
In the passenger seat, I sat silently, holding my breath and waiting.
He stared out across the hood of the car. “I can’t choose. I love you and,” he jerked his head toward the backseat, “these two, of course, but” here it is, finally “I really love SK and I want to keep making music, do the things that I want to do for a change.” I stopped listening as he rambled on about working for his parents, how the Church and all its rules had kept him from being happy, how it was always someone or something else that controlled his life.
“I’ll start looking for another place tomorrow,” I said, not quite loud enough for him to hear. I said it to convince myself, not him, anyway. I knew he wouldn’t believe me. Once in an argument that summer, I had said that if things didn’t change, I would take the kids and move to my parents’ house. He didn’t miss a beat. “You’d never leave me,” he said and walked briskly out of the room. His assertion of power and my own weakness had frightened me enough to believe him. Now, hearing him admit that he could not choose his children over a teenage lover, it scared me more to stay.
I would have done anything he asked to stay married—if it weren’t for the kids. I didn’t want this new life, whatever it was evolving into, for them. The booze bottles and homemade bongs weren’t what I’d signed up for when I’d said “I do” and let him slip the gold band onto my finger.
Telling my parents was both intensely painful and a surprising relief. From the distance, they’d seen the unhappiness I had been unwilling to admit. It didn’t matter that the Church validated only three reasons for divorce: adultery, addiction, or abuse; they understood without my telling them that Ryan’s behavior was close enough to satisfy two out of three. Despite what must have been an embarrassment to both family and friends, they supported my decision with love and the offer to help financially.
For the next two weeks, I looked at one apartment after another, hauling Audrey along on my hip while Stuart held tightly to my hand. My parents would pay the deposits to get in, but first I had to find a place we could afford once I found work. With no college degree and after staying home with the kids for six years, it wouldn’t be easy. Looking at one cramped, filthy apartment after another, I wondered why we were the ones who had to leave. I didn’t want to move out; I wanted Ryan to come to his senses and realize what he was losing. I wanted him to fight for his family. Instead, he spent the evenings with friends while I packed the kids’ clothes and toys into scavenged boxes and plastic garbage bags. Eventually we found a small two-bedroom apartment, just six blocks from what I would learn to call “Daddy’s house” instead of “home.”
In early September, my parents made the hour-plus drive to Portland to help me move. Together my dad and I packed as much as we could into his cube van while my mom entertained the kids in our postage-stamp front yard. I left the living room furniture, clinging to the hope that we wouldn’t be gone long and wouldn’t need it. Besides, I thought, I would have the kids. He could keep the couch and TV.
While my dad loaded the last of the boxes into our new apartment, my mom struggled to set up Audrey’s crib in the room she and her brother would share. Boxes with a mishmash of belongings were stacked in the living room, but I shooed my parents away from helping me unpack. There would be time for that, but I couldn’t do it then. I needed to be alone. When our new landlord knocked on the door, my dad answered and handed over a check for my first and last month’s rent, then stood in the open doorway. It was his way of telling my mom it was time to go. She hugged me hard and looked me in the eyes. “It’ll be okay,” she said, and I wanted to believe her more than anything.
Closing the door behind them, I watched through the peephole as my parents walked away, hand in hand. The tears were finally coming and I knew they wouldn’t stop. Stuart and Audrey were playing happily among the cardboard in our furniture-less living room, unaware that everything about their lives had changed that day.
Leaving them to play, I sat, sobbing, behind the closed door in a bedroom I would share with no one. I pulled my journal out of an open box and began to write: “We have become a trio.” I drew a small frown. “I hope it doesn’t last.”
I would spend a year jumping through confusing legal hoops to get our marriage dissolved. I’d filed for divorce out of fury, still hoping Ryan would change his mind. But he didn’t. Sophie Kate had practically moved in and I had to move on, though it wouldn’t be easy. He refused to attend the required parenting classes, to sign the paperwork, or pay his half of the court costs. After the third time I came to the court and he failed to show up, the judge signed over full custody of Stuart and Audrey without questions and ordered their father to pay $500 a month in child support.
In November and again in December I hoped a check would come. By January I realized the money would never come. What was supposed to be weekly visits were inconsistent from the start and soon became rare, surprise treats. By the end of the year, Ryan quit his job as a software developer, taking a position at the local thrift shop, and when his wages were garnished, he quit working at legitimate jobs altogether and began earning cash and drink tokens under the table. When I mentioned our agreement for child support, he argued that he wasn’t going to pay me to raise his children; if I wanted them, I could have them.
I wanted them, but I also needed to provide for them, something I couldn’t do without help. With the encouragement of my sister, I applied for and received food stamps. We were approved for a Section 8 voucher and I was able to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies—but I craved a better life for us. Despite working full time, my income was far below the poverty line and I knew things had to change.
If I wasn’t going to have the life I’d planned, I would make a better one. I made a list of the three things I most wanted to do, but had not been able to while I was married:
1. Go to college
2. Live in a house.
3. Travel somewhere.
Scrawled onto a Post-it note, I tacked my life goals to the inside cover of my journal, a daily reminder of what I wanted.