“Don’t hit me! Don’t hit me!” my ex-husband yelled, his face red, veins popping from his neck, spittle sticking to his lips. He stood inches from me in the hallway outside the master suite—his room—with our two daughters down the hall in their rooms.
“I didn’t touch you!” I yelled, stepping back, opening my hands in front of me.
“Don’t touch me!” he shouted again, stepping closer.
For years I had feared that his words would morph into fists, but this accusation of violence scared me. I had done nothing. Was this a set-up so he could hit me in self-defense? “You’re crazy! What are you talking about?! GET AWAY FROM ME!” I cried, stepping back into my room, locking the door, turning up the radio so I couldn’t hear him screaming that he’d call the police. Was he preparing for some imaginary courtroom drama where our daughters could claim I hit their father?
This twisting of reality had become my reality in the four years that it took to get divorced and sell the family home. His mind could contort the turning up or down of a thermostat into an offense—as it could with the volume of a radio or even an open door. Now, he had created a threat so he could continue to embitter my life because I wouldn’t just walk out, abandoning our daughters, and leaving the house to him.
“Turn it down! I can’t read!” my older daughter yelled, banging on our shared wall. My daughter, who used to respect me but now despised me for my weaknesses. Her shriek coincided with my heartbreak—“Crazy woman!”
I couldn’t have predicted this 30 years ago when he sat next to me on a bus in Israel—happenstance generating the spark that would join a 21-year-old American tourist and a 19-year-old Israeli soldier. He wooed me in letters after I left Israel three days later, and when I moved from New York to Israel nine months after that. His intelligence, vitality, and infatuation with me made me bless that serendipitous moment.
For two years on Friday afternoons when he had Shabbat leave (he was an officer completing his service), we would go to the beach in Tel Aviv, rolling with the waves, embracing with our limbs and through our dreams, letting the hot sun and cool waters of the Mediterranean forge our relationship. Afterward, we would eat hamburgers in pitas with hummus and pickled baby eggplants—adding to the sense that life in this place and with this man would be an adventure. And it was.
Initially, he was my guide to all things cultural and bureaucratic as I learned to live in Israel. His push to incorporate me, his reserved girlfriend, into his thriving life of friends and interests, helped me find my place. The lure of opposites lasted twelve years: we married, he became a successful lawyer, I was a writer in the high-tech industry, and we had two daughters.
But the excitement of having a yin/yang partner who was competitive to my passivity and confident to my self-doubt turned on me when I grew into myself.
Initially, I thought his driving or walking past Do Not Enter signs showed his sense of curiosity and adventure—a bit of that wild side that I found so exciting. But years later, when we were entering an outdoor festival with our daughters and I was reaching for my wallet, he suggested we walk around the entrance where he spied an opening. I looked at him in disgust and walked up to the ticket table and bought four tickets.
When we bought our first car in Israel, he handled all the negotiations. I didn’t think that my Hebrew or my understanding of the way things worked were up to the task. Fifteen years later, when we moved to Virginia, I spoke up in the car salesman’s cubicle, only to have my husband tell me, in Hebrew, to shut up, that he would handle it, otherwise we wouldn’t get a good deal. Maybe it’s true, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten the faux leather seats and the sunroof, but what of the cost to my ego being put-down so publicly. The salesman didn’t need to understand Hebrew to know what was said. The same thing happened when we bought our house—he told me to be quiet or I would ruin the deal.
I started to view his confidence as arrogance after we moved to Northern Virginia in 2000 for my job relocation. Perhaps my confidence finally thrived—no longer held back by a language that was never my own and a sense that I would always feel like a visitor, even after 17 years in Israel.
He found a job in business development at a DC law firm. But our jobs didn’t survive the economic bust: I lost mine in less than a year, and he lost his two years later. Right before he lost his job, I told him that I wanted a divorce. He asked me to wait until he got a job. I agreed, but I had assumed he would move out or at least move into the basement, but he refused. As the abusive behavior intensified, I thought of moving out, but I was afraid I would lose my daughters. I couldn’t afford to live in their school district or near their friends and I feared that they would choose to stay with him, so I never asked. How could being away from him be good if it meant being away from them? So I stayed and endured for four years.
Becoming a financial consultant didn’t work out for him: he was laid off in 2008. Then, according to our daughters (because we had stopped talking since you can’t have a conversation if neither of you will listen to the other), he worked independently.
When we moved, our older daughter went to college out of state and our younger daughter did the custody dance, until she didn’t.
“Why are you here?” I asked one Friday when she was supposed to be with him. I had been looking forward to a quiet weekend without her nastiness. It seemed that she was doing with me what I had done with my mother. One day my mother commented that I was taking out my stresses on her because she would always be supportive.
“He can’t pick me up. He doesn’t have a car,” she replied, arms crossed.
“I can drive you.”
“No,” she said, staring at the carpet.
“Don’t you understand? He has no money!” she yelled, running to her bedroom and slamming the door.
No, I didn’t understand.
That was in June 2011.
Later that day she told me that he was hoping the big deal he was working on would come through.
At the end of August the conversation continued in the car. The deal hadn’t worked out and she needed to go to his house for a few hours on Saturday (she had not been there the entire summer). “He’s being evicted on Monday. I need to,” she paused, looking out the window, “get some things.”
“Why not stay there for the weekend?” I thought she’d want to spend as much time as possible with him before he—. Evicted. It didn’t make sense.
“I don’t want to be there when,” she paused. More staring.
I was stunned, how could this have happened to the man I once idolized; who had been such a good provider? We continued home in silence, crying. I was not a mother able to console her child. It occurred to me that perhaps I was stronger, more resilient than he was and that he had needed more support than he ever let on or that I could give him.
My older daughter told me that her sister said he was going to California because, as he said, “It would be easier to be homeless in California.”
Days after getting her things, my younger daughter told me she felt guilty that she was not with him on a bench somewhere. “He’s my father, I should be with him.”
With that the pain of jealousy pushed out sympathy—it had come to pass—she picked him over me. Her compassion for her father was wonderful, but I felt betrayed. Now I had tears of self-pity. “Sweetie, you can’t feel bad that you’re not there. He’s got to take care of himself, and you—that wouldn’t be good for you.”
“If you ever want to talk about it--.”
She looked at me, and then out the window. “I know,” she said quietly.
No one has heard from him since then.
I am not my ex-husband’s keeper, but I cannot help but feel guilty. After all, we moved from Israel because of my job. He had supported my writing and my creative projects: he helped look for publishers for my children’s books and outlets for the games and toys I developed. I initiated the divorce.
I used to think that there was a balance between us: I supported him when he went to law school and he supported us when I stayed home intermittently with the girls. I lived in his country and then he lived in mine. Now I realize that most of those decisions were mine. He was overbearing in our day-to-day lives, telling me what shoes to buy for the girls and myself, and where to go on vacation, but those things don’t outweigh having imposed such big changes on him.
His outward bearing of absolute autonomy never revealed doubts, and so I assumed he could handle the changes that came his way.
Thinking of him alone on a bench somewhere, while I have a good job and the respect of our daughters, makes me realize that perhaps I brought more pain to him than he brought to me. So as much as I hate him for how he abused me and for walking out on our daughters, more than anything, I feel sadness for what he has lost.