“I met my two husbands on the same day”
twenty-three years ago, at the same moment, I met the two most important men in my life. They were university students and close mates. “I want you to meet Jay and Brendan,” a friend said. “You’ll love them.” A solid prediction. I did love them. I still do.
First in line
I recognised Jay as the guy I had been admiring on campus. I’d noticed him across a lawn and liked his walk. Yes, I thought, that’s the one. Look at his golden hair, his winter tan.
Why had I pegged him as a prize? Perhaps evolution – a biological desire to mate with a wiry blond who looked like he knew how to surf and ski. I did not surf or ski.
A gifted pessimist, I was afraid of everything: getting lost, strangers on the bus, cats. Jay seemed fearless. He was what I wanted to be: carefree, confident and always tan, thanks to trips to places I’d never been.
All I cared about then, and for a long time after, was being picked. As a kid that had meant being chosen by the girls I admired. Attractive girls who rolled the waists of their skirts to make them shorter, girls who made me hope
that I might end up like them. Later this attention turned to boys. Being picked by a guy would elevate me to the highest plane of happiness.
In the student house Jay played host while Brendan sat serenely smiling at me. His politeness and muscular legs are all I remember. I often wonder, ‘How did I overlook the person who occupies my entire inner life now?’
“We were just talking about how to make a cursive capital Q,” Jay said. “Do you have any idea, Renee?” “I think so,” I said. “Then please write the alphabet in cursive, with an emphasis on Q.”
While I took the ridiculous Q exam, I congratulated myself: I’ve willed Jay to notice me! Do I look OK from there? I have green eyes. My breasts get great reviews! That’s what I had to give – my entire self for approval. “My Q is perfect,” I said. “That’s it!” Jay said. “It’s supposed to look like the number two! Renee, we’re going to keep an eye on you.”
Yes! Pick me. Make me happy. And for a long time he did. We became inseparable. We moved in together and life was like a movie, complete with wine, baguettes and cobbled streets. We went to dinners, learnt to cook and shopped at five stores for one recipe. I felt like I’d won a prize. Even after we got married, and had children, I saw Jay as a reward.
Out of balance
At first, I enjoyed being the serious partner and saw Jay’s chaos as the antidote to my cautiousness. But his last-minute decisions made life unpredictable while he perceived my need for specifics as controlling. The differences excited me until they didn’t. Sometimes they announced themselves and sometimes they woke me in the middle of the night. I’d sit up in bed, worrying about our fighting.
One time, I saved up and used my meagre earnings as a media assistant and bought him expensive shoes he had been admiring. He cherished them, he said. Then he left them behind on a bus. He’d worn them once. “I’m sorry – I just forgot,” was his response.
“Don’t be mad, relax,” he’d always say. But carelessness bothered me, and when he was simply being true to his nature, I’d become impatient and irritated.
I clawed around trying to figure out myself, realising things I thought I liked were things I couldn’t stand. My intolerance for his scattered style grew. If he lost his keys, I wouldn’t talk to him for hours. My anger wasn’t Jay’s fault, but I punished him. His lightness made me darker and I sliced him and our marriage to shreds.
Brendan had stayed close to Jay and me, and when he got married, we often saw each other in groups. When Brendan and I were together, there was a palpable attraction. We experienced things and people the same way. We were moved by language, by the same books and films, and shared the same sense of humour. When we disagreed, I was awed by how smart he was. He could convince me of anything. He said the same about me.
By the time we confessed our feelings, it was old news. It had been obvious for a decade by then, in every word and glance. Our tangled roots had grown over many years. For a long time they felt as if they were going to rise up and strangle me. I tried to ignore the ground that was shifting beneath me. Let go of me, I thought. I like my own tree.
I went to a therapist, demanding à la carte treatment for this problem. She said no, it doesn’t work that way, but we’ll get to it. I sobbed. “I love one of my oldest friends. And he loves me, too. Please help. Make it stop.” I wanted her to tell me I was bad, reckless, greedy. She would not do that, she said, I had to figure out the life I wanted.
Once I decided what to do, I never returned to therapy. The power of my feelings had shocked me.
“Jay seemed fearless. He was what I wanted to be: carefree, con dent and always tan.”
And they were never going to go away, not with the help of 10 therapists, not by moving across the world. I told the truth. Our family and friends all said the same thing in different ways: one life, no dress rehearsals. Some things are just too big.
Brendan and I are now happily married. Our life bursts with parenting our combined four kids, our careers and the admin that comes with a family of six. But Brendan always smiles when he walks through our front door. He’s proud I’m his wife, and that is the best thing I’ve ever felt.
Jay has forgiven me for changing his life in a way that has caused so much pain. We’ll be friends until we die, and not because we’re bound by children. A biological event isn’t proof you ever liked your spouse, and I like Jay so very much.
And he’s fulfilled now, with a lovely partner who makes him happy in ways that I never did. He’s the kindest man and father. He still makes me laugh. Both he and Brendan do. They even make each other laugh, often at my expense. I don’t mind.
But Brendan, my husband, is the one who reflects what I am and always was – what I want to be desired and loved for. He likes that I’m not easy. He’s patient with my guilt, even when I focus on the past, on the pain I caused instead of focusing on the future. He’s always been strong enough for the weather that I bring.
Happily ever after
I’m ashamed to think that I wanted Jay to fix me, to change me into a woman as smooth and agreeable as he was. I’m even more ashamed of blaming him when he couldn’t do that.
I saw the truth when I ended our marriage: what I wanted was not what I’d thought I wanted. I wanted to reveal myself more, not less, to be better, but not transformed. When I did the picking and stopped waiting to be picked, I recognised what had been in right front of me all along – Brendan, myself, our whole life.
I hadn’t known it then, but that very first encounter at university, the moment when our three lives became forever intertwined, before we knew how people can love and destroy one another, would become the defining moment of my life.
It set in motion a series of life events and the emotions that come with them: love, marriage, having children, brokenness, divorce, pain, remarriage, guilt, forgiveness and friendship – and in the end, peace.
“When I did the picking and stopped waiting to be picked, I recognised what had been right in front of me.”