“I met my two hus­bands on the same day”

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents -

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.

Catch­ing feel­ings

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.”

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