1. When he says he’s sorry and he wants to come home, believe him.
2. Accept his explanation that there was never anybody else, that he was just confused. A mid-life crisis. Banish the visions of him fucking another woman on a futon in his apartment in east Harlem. Kiss him like you believe that his lips haven’t been fumbling around in another woman’s cunt. Try not to suspect that he wants to come home because he’s lonely. That being yet another divorced middle-aged man in Manhattan wasn’t the ongoing party that he had dreamed it would be. Try not to see his relief when you finally say yes, come home. Believe that he really loves you.
3. Never admit – to him or to yourself – that you took him back because you were scared. When you’re sitting across the dining room table from him once again, smile as if everything’s the same, and forget how you lay awake all night wondering if you would be able to keep the house, how you were going to pay the bills with the intermittent funds he sent your way. When you put on your make-up in the morning, forget how you peered at your face in this mirror, seeing the newborn wrinkles below the crease of your upper lids, the sporadic gray hair springing up from the wheat-colored waves. How you wondered if anyone would ever again call this face beautiful and look into its naked eyes and whisper I love you. Tell yourself that you took him back because everyone makes mistakes and you forgive him. You love him.
4. After he’s moved back in, unpacked his bags and reclaimed his side of the bed, assure him that you can put the past behind you. Promise him that you won’t throw the way he left you in his face every time you have an argument. Mean it. As he puts his toothbrush back in the toothbrush holder, try not to remember how on that morning, a dewy late spring morning, he announced that he was leaving you and your two children. After twenty years of marriage he didn’t love you the way he should. He loved you, but wasn’t in love with you anymore. As he stacks his boxer shorts back in his underwear drawer, push aside the memory of when he told you he just needed time to think. But not to worry – he would always take care of you. Six months have passed now. He’s changed. You’ve changed. You’re coming back together because this is what was meant to be. You belong together, he says. Help him hang his shirts back up on his side of the closet.
5. Ignore the anger that simmers beneath the surface of your forgiveness. Brushfire anger. Ancient anger, deep and barely restrained. Tamp it down. Let your children express it for you. Don’t reprimand your teenage son when he tells his father to fuck off, he doesn’t have to listen to the person who walked out on his family. When your daughter looks at her father with hard burnt eyes and turns away without answering him, reassure him that she just needs time. Don’t remind him how she begged him not to leave, then refused to see him afterward when he came to visit. Don’t point out that on the day he left your son went into his room and didn’t come out for a whole day. And when he did, he refused to talk about what had happened. When your husband tries to reach your children now and they curl their lips at him as if he were something clinging to the bottom of their shoes, step aside and let him handle it. Keep your promise to yourself that you will no longer translate his children to him. You will no longer keep him apprised of their schedules and disappointments, the latest reconfiguration of their social lives. Tell him – firmly, but not bitterly – that he has to excavate their secrets himself. Let him duke it out for himself.
6. When he’s inside of you, try not to mind that you never come. And that he never seems to notice that you never come. Thrust aside the urge to push him away as he’s laboring over your tired, child-worn body, the body you tried to keep firm with yoga and Pilates, light weight training, and salad after boring salad. Believe him when he tells you that you still look the same to him, even after over twenty years. Try not to remember that he told you before he left that you didn’t satisfy him sexually. That you were too uptight. That he never looked at you when you made love because he didn’t really love you. Chalk it up to his “confusion” and let him pump away at you. Embrace his sweaty back when he’s done. Hold him tight. Let him know he’s home.
7. Hold onto the person you became when he was gone. After your Mrs. was burned away in a splendid act of spontaneous combustion, remember how surprised you were to discover that there was a person there, beneath the wifedom. Take her out; let her breathe. Let her stretch her new limbs. Protect her from his well-meaning solicitude, this woman, who has discovered that she doesn’t have to preface every statement with “I’m sorry, but…” Treasure her unselfconscious laughter, her bawdiness, her willingness to let herself be happy again. Try not to mind that this woman starts to fade when he moves back in, flinching back from his pervasive male presence.
8. Go to marriage counseling. Find the one therapist in the northern half of the state covered by your insurance who has hours on Saturday, the only day you can both go. Try not to suspect that because this therapist is a man he will be less in tune with your feelings. Let your husband take the hard wooden chair because of his back while you sink – ungraceful, ungainly – into the pilly couch. Avert your eyes from the painting of the weeping woman hanging over the desk. When George-the-therapist advises the two of you to spend more time alone together, nod. Agree to make a list of the activities you can do together and bring it to the next session. Watch your husband nod when George-the-therapist tells him he needs to make this one-on-one time for each child, each week, and know – because you were married to this man for over twenty years – that he’s wondering how he’s going to fit all this one-on-one time into his sixty hour work week. Agree to make these lists, too. After the session, when you’ve walked past the row of whooshing noise machines sprouting outside their closed doors like white mushrooms, let him take your hand and try not to wonder when George-the-therapist will help the two of you unearth the hidden bombshells in your marriage and wave them away with the magic wand of analysis. Several lists later, when your husband wants to quit because he feels you both have all the therapy you need, agree. Try not to feel like somehow the point has been missed.
9. Learn to admit that you contributed to the near demise of your marriage. Do this without therapy. Realize that you should have listened when he said he was tired. Understand now that you should have spoken up sooner when he started going night after night to the bar across the street from where he worked. Admit that you should have recognized the signs that he was not satisfied with his life – the job he had had for over fifteen years, the children who barely acknowledged him when he spoke, the life at home that because he was gone for most of the day and some of the night went on without him. How he would come home to a circle of three that didn’t include him. Still allow yourself to be angry that he didn’t find a way to tell you this before it was too late. But understand that he probably didn’t know himself. This feels better and more real than being the victim.
10. As the days, then weeks, then months, pile one atop the other, cease to divide time into before (he left) and after (he came home). Rediscover the magic in each other that drew you together in the first place. Rebuild the house of your marriage on this new foundation. Let time heal all wounds. Look back at that twenty-one year old girl who agreed to marry this man and marvel that she was so reckless as to promise to love and cherish one person for a lifetime. Forgive her. Realize that marriage is both harder and more fragile than she had dreamed.
11. Pin this resurrected marriage up on the wall with thumbtacks. Hang it out to dry on the clothesline. Stick it up on the refrigerator door with magnets next to your daughter’s soccer schedule. Lather it well; rinse; repeat. Nip here and tuck there until it fits just right. Air it out. Recycle it so it can be used as a source of renewable energy.
12. But. Then comes the morning when you open your eyes and you know. And you toss some clothes into one of the kids’ discarded knapsacks and make sure you have your ATM card. Allow yourself a last look at him – snoring still under the blankets. Wake the children and lead them sleepy slow down the stairs. Outside, the light is the color of dishwater. Get in your car; point it toward Shangri-La, and drive. Drive.
Susan Lago an adjunct professor of English at Montclair State University where she tries to teach writing to freshmen. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews have appeared in such publications as Verbsap, Writer’s Post Literary Journal, UnlikelyStories, Scrivener’s Pen Literary Journal, Five Star Literary Stories, The Linnet’s Wing, The Blotter Magazine and Word Riot.