I didn’t know it would be one of the last trips my husband and I would ever take, when I went to Puerto Rico for the first time three years ago. It just seemed like a chance to get some sun in the middle of a gray New York City winter, and the chance to explore a place neither of us had ever visited before.
But it was, and I was thinking about all this when my plane landed in San Juan, coming in for a landing past Old San Juan, and Condado, and finally Isla Verde, where I could see the hotels we stayed at, the InterContinental and La Verdanza. As we touched down, in the rain, I leaned my forehead against the window and remembered the couple that vacationed there, the two of us, reading on the beach, and exploring Castillo San Cristobal, and drinking coconut mojitos with pineapple, and eating red snapper ceviche with tostones, and shrimp and mofongo.
I have not allowed myself to think of the good times with him too much during the nine months that passed from the night he came home from work, packed a bag, and told me that our 16 -year marriage was over, until the afternoon that I received the final divorce decree.
Not because it would have been too painful for me to have relived those memories, but because it would been dangerously confusing. It’s a profound mental shift that you have to make when someone very suddenly goes from being your trusted life partner to being your legal adversary. When the person who knows every single one of your soft spots starts coming at you with a knife, it’s simply not a good time to flip through the family vacation photo album.
But that time is now over, and in fact, I was heading to Puerto Rico with two good friends to mark the transition from “going through a divorce,” to just being divorced. The finality of all of this was sealed for me not by a judge’s signature, but on the night a couple of weeks later that I learned that my soon-to-be-not-quite-yet-ex-husband was already engaged to…
Here I pause, fingers hovering over the keyboard. What polite word can I use for this woman that my husband became involved with during our marriage? “Girlfriend” suggests an innocence that she might have had in high school, when she first met him, but which she certainly forfeited by allowing a married man into her bed. And “mistress” is far too classy for a low-level municipal employee who apparently favors clothing with copious elastic waistbands.
No, I do not know what to call the woman who now wears the tacky engagement ring. But on Facebook, I’ve been told, the couple are receiving their congratulations, including this comment: “I love how you two found each other again.”
The venue for the statement is appropriate, since they did reconnect on Facebook. (Yes, yes, this is one of those divorces.) But even though I don’t know the person who wrote it, I dwell on the sentiment, because it erases my existence in its entirety. My friends point out that this particular well-wisher might not know the truth of how this couple actually found each other again, or that this new union is being built on the still-smoldering ashes of another, or that the newly minted fiancé was, in cold legal fact, still married when he got down on bended knee. He was still married to me.
There is no past; there are just versions of the past. Proving one version true settles absolutely nothing, because proving another is equally possible. If I were to rewrite the scene one more time, this new version would overwrite the previous ones and, in time, become just another version among many. – Andre Aciman, How Memorists Mold the Truth
When I booked the Puerto Rico trip with my friends, I didn’t think very much about the fact that it had been a place I’d vacationed with my ex-husband. I chose the destination on the basis of price, and I didn’t consider that since Vieques is not a very large island, I would end up revisiting many of the places that I’d visited when I was married.
It was indeed strange to go back to places I’d been in my previous existence as a wife. In part, because Blue Beach is still Blue Beach and my life has changed so much since I was last there that I don’t even have the same name. And in part, because despite everything that my ex-husband has done, I still find it profoundly weird that I’ll never tell him about my new experiences in a place we first discovered together.
But it did feel good to overlay the memories of my previous trip there with new ones. I now no longer remember what my husband and I talked about when we dined in Esperanza, but I do remember what my friends and I talked about as we watched the schizophrenic guy running down the street with a knife and a bucket of water and the frond of a palm tree. I vaguely remember searching the island for a mid-afternoon pastry that my husband chronically and urgently required, but I now better remember better the gladness I felt on this trip when a pie described as pecan turned out to be chocolate caramel pecan. I’m no longer certain whether I ever went into the water with my then-husband at Blue Beach, but I do remember swimming with my friends in the strong surf, and eventually sitting down on the shore and letting the waves pull at my toes.
When it was time to leave Vieques, my friends and I departed on an airplane — a tiny plane to San Juan, a connection to JFK. In the air, I remembered that when I was married, we left Vieques via the ferry to Fajardo. The sea was a little rough that day, and as the boat rode the swells, a woman standing near me clutched her husband’s arm. “I’m going to have a panic attack,” she said to him. “We’ll take the airplane next time,” he said. My husband and I exchanged knowing glances. At the time, I was sure that he was thinking the same thing that I was – such a fuss over a few waves!
But as the plane landed in San Juan, I realized that I actually had no idea what he’d been thinking at that moment, just as I have no idea what he’s thinking now.
I never really knew him at all.
Alison J. Stein
Latest posts by Alison J. Stein (see all)
- Retreat into Silence - January 21, 2014
- Between Fascination and Nausea in Philadelphia - January 7, 2014
- Travel Writing that Made Me Not Hate Travel Writing - December 10, 2013
- Breakfast in Detroit - November 19, 2013