Bye Bye Baby
Moving out on my addict husband made sense. . . but divorcing him feels so . . . final
The last time I saw my husband, Liam, was about eight months ago. He lives in a different state, geographically and mentally. He had gotten a four-day gig as a production designer on a shoot for a commercial, which is what he does or, rather, what he used to do. He called, saying he was flying to New York from Gainesville, Florida. Could he stay with me in Brooklyn and tag on an extra day to catch up?
I couldn’t wait.
I had left Liam three years prior to this impending visit, moving out of our lovely, sunny, dirt-cheap, rent-stabilized, three-bedroom Lower East Side apartment (it was his after all), where we had once lived happily then miserably for thirteen years. Our last three years had been a kind of Sartrean hell.
I was clean and sober courtesy of a 28-day stint at a ramshackle, cockroach-beset inpatient rehab upstate where I was determined never to return. “You might have gone to French boarding school, Tessa, but you’re just a junky like the rest of us,” I was told by the counselor as I sat in group, among crackheads, criminals, winos, and whores, attempting to express that I was nothing like the present company while my entire body shook, racked by the paroxysms of heroin, meth, benzo, and alcohol withdrawal. The words felt like a hot, sharp slap in the face but one I well deserved. They did the job, waking me from my torpor as if undoing a spell.
I’m a sucker when it comes to my one and only love, whom I am, in fact, no longer in love with.
Liam opted to do an outpatient program in the city at the same time. We planned to start life anew. He had written a list of the fun sober things we would do once I returned to the city, no longer bound to the apartment, using or jonesing, curtains shutting out the light. He relapsed shortly after I came home.
Those last three years, Liam made a million promises to stay clean, breaking them and my heart each time he relapsed. When he cavalierly left a line on a glass surface in a room, I did not succumb, diligently doing as I’d been told by the counselors, crackheads, criminals, winos, and whores who had saved me. This spring, I will have been sober eight years.
Liam and I had been innocents once. You can see this in our wedding photos, both of us dressed in white beneath a trellis of wisteria in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden after a light rain so that the pavement reflects fallen petals. Liam is thirty-one, a visual artist, tall, thin, blond and blue-eyed, athletic, with a quirkily handsome face. He has a degree in poetry and as a high schooler won a national Latin vocabulary competition. I am thirty-six, have nearly completed my first novel, Jewish, brunette, slim, tan, pretty in that way you only realize in retrospect. An Ancient Greek geek high schooler, I have a master’s in lit and creative writing. There are smirks on our faces as we catch each other’s sideways glimpses. Liam reminded me of a fawn that moved swiftly and gracefully through the woods.
We had a lot of love to give and were thirsty to receive it. Liam had been adopted by a loving family, albeit fucked-up in its own way (to summon Tolstoy) with an extreme-bipolar mom. I’d grown up on the hippie trail with a distracted mom, amid pot-smoking, drugs, drinking, and drama. We had found a blissful respite in the other. In these photos, our faces are sluiced like the pavement of the walkway beneath the wisteria as the female reverend weds us. July 31, 2000. We had met three years earlier. We stood on a vertiginously high plank but did not know it.
As a teen, I’d been a black-out drunk and druggie, but by the time I moved to New York City for college, I cleaned up my act. When I met Liam, I binged occasionally. Within months of meeting him, I moved into his place on Ridge Street (he had proposed after three weeks, and I immediately said yes, breaking a vow I’d made at ten never to marry).
If I began to slur my words or behave obnoxiously at a party, Liam gently nudged me, saying it was time to go home. He never drank as much as I did. I can only remember him wasted two times—where it was my turn to hold back the hair, clean up the vomit, get a limp, heavy body undressed and in bed. We were thirtysomethings in love, doing what most thirtysomethings in New York City do. We were in control. I worked at two magazines and had gotten a big-cheese literary agent at a fancy agency, the kind that offers you bottled water or cappuccino. Liam made videos that looked like swirling watercolors. He had solo shows in Tribeca. He began PA-ing on commercials and, within a year, moved up the ladder to art director, then production designer. We made good money, paid little rent, our lives were on track and full of promise.
But we were sleeper cells slowly waking into action. At some point during our marriage, things took a turn. Once every few months, we began having small ecstasy gatherings at our apartment. I began blacking out again, combining ecstasy with numerous bottles of champagne. Our parties became frequent, notorious, huge—often I didn’t know half the people teeming inside our home. We egged each other on. At one of these parties, our dealer showed up with something new: “Crystal meth. It’s amazing!” Indeed. It became an every-weekend thing. I could drink more like a lady now, though I still ended up in my bra and panties wherever we happened to be, so always made sure I wore a nice set.
In the midst of this, Liam’s beloved ten-year-old niece died in a freak accident. We were destroyed. And, shortly after, in summer ’01, Liam’s best friend Mike died in yet another freak accident. We were in shock, still reeling from little Betty’s death, Liam a mess. For months, I had to hold him upright as we walked down the street. Then a few months later 9/11 happened, filling our apartment with smoke by Thursday as the toxic cloud made its way uptown. Now it wasn’t just us stumbling around like zombies but everyone.
We retaliated by partying like it was 2001. It was the end of innocence, the end of the world. We needed prescription pills to come down from the meth. One day, we ran out of benzos, and we were, like, “Well, let’s try heroin—it’s cheap!”
During those last three years with Liam, we continually battled eviction notices, me borrowing money to bail us out. His calls for work dwindled to near naught. The apartment reeked of rancid sweat and blackened meth, a cloying scent like burned plastic. The desk in the office was littered with glassine baggies. With each of Liam’s promises dashed, each lie, each theft, my love eroded, like an island cannibalized. I tried to save him, using every tack. Nothing worked.
Liam helped me shuttle ten small boxes to an apartment on the opposite side of Houston, where I had rented a room. Sobbing, we hugged good-bye, clinging agonizingly too long. I walked up to my coffin-sized room, broke and broken. Within two years, I would be ghostwriting novels for a New York Times bestselling author and could afford my own place in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Liam’s career as a production designer had completely died. Without warning, he called ten days before moving back home to Florida and told me to come get my furniture and anything else. He was being evicted; this time there was no one to help.
Nor had there been anyone to open the windows and let in the air and light. Empty wax-paper envelopes lay everywhere, lining each shelf, nestled along the walls and inside dusty corners, behind each piece of furniture, an infestation.
A pall fell over the city when Liam left. Still, to this day, something inside me lifts then plummets whenever I pass our Delancey Street stop on the F.
When Liam called requesting to crash on my couch, he assured me he’d been clean. More than six months had elapsed since he’d left for Florida, and now he was attending AA meetings and loving them, he told me. This from a man who had once declared, “I can’t imagine a lifetime of holding clammy hands and reciting the Serenity Prayer.”
I could breathe. This kind-cruel city had given my dreamer everything, then taken it away, including me. I could remove the hair shirt. What I dreamed of most—more than publishing my own novel instead of other people’s—was Liam’s sobriety. I wanted to see that fawn leap through the woods again, even if it was away from me.
My survivor’s guilt has held me back, prevented me from divorcing (poor Liam, an adoptee, will be destroyed). I’ve been locked in, keeping Liam on my health insurance plan or paying our unpaid taxes from our addled days. It took me three years to separate our phone plan and not be stuck with his bill. Now I could stop worrying he would overdose, making me a widow. I could get involved in a serious relationship, rather than the go-nowhere ones with men nearly half my age.
My best friend had made it over the border. This was it. Liam sounded great.
But there was a caveat.
When I asked how long he’d been clean and sober, he promised to tell all once he arrived. There was something more pressing. “I was in a terrible bike accident,” he said. “Do you hear that whistling sound? I feel like a rattling snake.” It was subtle but obviously amplified for him.
Riding his bike he had glanced away and been hit by a car, flying face-first into the street, breaking two front teeth, busting his nose, and mangling a knee. He looked like shit, he said. I asked if he thought it wise to come. “You sound like you need to stay off your feet. There will be other offers, Liam. I’m sure of it!” I said optimistically. It had worked like that for me once I’d gotten sober. He really needed the job, he explained, and they were flying him in.
“Please come and stay with me,” I said. We were all giving him a second chance.
I’m a sucker when it comes to my one and only love, whom I am, in fact, no longer in love with.
The first and second night Liam stayed with me, we talked late into the night, like best friends reunited at summer camp. The third night, I went into the bathroom as Liam exited and found a pyramid of heroin on the sink’s counter. He was on his way to get something to snort it, which he’d apparently forgotten, when I happened along.
We sat in the living room in tears. It was a quiet fight, as they almost always had been, neither of us big on histrionics. “I have been clean until now,” Liam said. “My knee was throbbing. I’ve been in agony, Tessa, then being here, back in New York . . .” His knee looked terribly red and swollen. “We could have gotten medicine from the doctor. You didn’t have to get heroin,” I said, crestfallen. He reiterated yet again how he’d been clean and going to meetings. “What does that matter?” I asked. “You’re not clean now.” He promised to be out by morning. The next day when I trundled into the living room, the blankets were neatly folded on the couch. The only other trace of him was a rolled-up hundred dollar bill that had fallen behind the toilet I found a few days later.
One friend likens my refusal to filing for divorce to not paying her parking tickets, which accrue in expense and gravity as long as they remain unpaid. She doesn’t understand what lies behind such obdurate behavior. I think it’s an excellent analogy. I don’t quite understand my inability to overcome my sluggish inertia to get a divorce. The psyche is a mysterious thing but clearly with a dumb logic. My marriage failed. Drugs and alcohol sent it speeding like a runaway train, derailed it, and killed it. I believe an injustice has been done. By whom? I’m not sure. By doing nothing, I refuse to acknowledge such an injustice took place, and if I ignore it long enough, perhaps it will go away.
For 2014, I took Liam off my health insurance plan—tiny steps that feel enormous. One day, I will walk myself into a courthouse where I’ll pick up one of those voluminous DIY divorce packets I dread not just for their emotional aspect but for the mind-numbing paperwork. Or I’ll pay a lawyer to take care of it—the ideal scenario. Who knows what internal or external mechanism will drive me. Maybe something terrible. Maybe something wonderful. Maybe I’ll fall in love all over again. Or maybe I’ll finally just want to be free of that will-o’-the-wisp that trails me.
Tessa Stein is a pseudonym for a ghostwriter in New York