I’m not saying I started the coronavirus pandemic, but the other day on the yoga mat I did set an intention to come to some kind of peace with my ex. Subsequent events have me believing the two might be related.
After six and a half years together, last April I discovered the ass had fallen in love with a geographically undesirable manic pixie dream girl 15 years his junior whom he “could not renounce.” By June, I was in a thousand pieces, and our house—a really nice 1920s town house in the 20th Arrondissement of Paris—was on the market. Where it sat. And sat. And sat. The price is right; the real-estate agent doesn’t understand, but sometimes it’s like that. Summer wore into fall. Strikes and gilets jaunes dealt their shitty hand. Our interactions got so hostile, it was wiser to stop speaking to each other entirely.
Neither of us is in a position to rent or buy another home, but we both travel a lot for work, so we limped along, the occasional terse e-mail about the electricity bill passing for communication. So as not to have a stale listing, we took the house off the market over Christmas and had been counting the days until after the February vacations and the return of prospective buyers.
When, last week, the day before we were to put the listing back up, Italy went on lockdown and the global economy spiraled into panic, I realized this was going to add months to what has already been a torturous odyssey of resentment and rancor, punctuated only by the on-and-off presence of two braces-faced teenagers to lighten the mood. It hit me like a cobblestone to the head. We both need to find places to live when this is all over, so we can’t drop the price to rock bottom. Who even knows what bottom is anymore? And now, as of three days ago, we’re all together on citywide confinement. The army is patrolling the streets to keep us indoors. (Together.) Namaste!
A Dignified Silent Treatment
Intentions are funny things. You set them and forget them, according to the chirpy yoga lady on YouTube. (Fellow confinees, she’s Adriene Mishler, known on the platform as Yoga with Adriene. A friend sent me her “Yoga for a Broken Heart” routine back in April and I’ve had a virtual date with her every morning since. In a supreme act of magical thinking, I’m giving “Yoga for Transitions” a lot of play lately.) At the time of my internal proclamation, my ex had just gotten back from a month-long trip. While he was gone, I roamed free in the house like those penguins at the Shedd Aquarium. His return meant I went back to second-floor exile.
When you are the Wronged Party, maintaining a dignified silent treatment means you spend a lot of time rearranging what used to be your shared bedroom and planning meals so that yours take place just a bit before the other’s—you’re there but not there, your ghostly presence ignoring him but acting as a reminder of his guilt, which you’re too classy to continue to bring up after all this time, though you’d still like it on his permanent record.
So for the better part of a year, I’d sit up in my room, a dirty plate of something next to me on the bed, craning my ears to overhear the conversation between my ex and his kids, who live with us half-time. Sometimes his heavy disciplinary hand with them made me want to fly downstairs and intervene, as I so often used to when we were en famille. But there’s not even a name for an ex-stepmom, let alone one wrapped in a comforter like a slightly more composed Mrs. Rochester (the first one), who has already been asked, with huffy indignation, to please no longer get involved. So I stole my moments and cursed his name. When they’d pop over to the house on their school lunch break, we’d catch up over stir-fried zucchini and rice, un classique de la maison and one of the easiest ways to get them to eat vegetables. When he was around, the party was over.
Well used to my nest, I was totally ready for social distancing by the time the coronavirus came barreling through Paris. So he surprised me when he actually spoke the other morning, descending early as I was having coffee, to ask if I could get one of my friends in New York to send him a pair of glasses; his old Warby Parker frames broke and since he wouldn’t be working for a few months, spending $700 for a whole new pair from the optician was not high on his list. Asking for help, however weirdly maladroit, was kind of a peace offering. But the cluelessness it took to imagine that anyone who had already threatened to get on a plane from J.F.K. expressly to beat his ass would take an hour or so out of the day to wait in line at the post office, in New York, for him? And that I’d be the one to ask? I explained it was a bit delicate and went right back to my feather-topped gulag. I spent the rest of the day there pretending to be on deadline, so as not to shatter what little civility we’d achieved, but actually on a text thread with my siblings on a deep dive into his every historic failing. So much for the power of intention, I thought, as I fell asleep to a string of podcasted discontent.
But there’s not even a name for an ex-stepmom, let alone one wrapped in a comforter like a slightly more composed Mrs. Rochester (the first one), who has already been asked, with huffy indignation, to please no longer get involved.
The next morning, which was Monday, I woke up with a dry cough and thought of my ex’s father, a widower who lives a half-hour outside of Paris, had a pulmonary embolism in January, and now wasn’t going to get to see his grandkids. My ex came downstairs, early again, and said he couldn’t sleep. Tell me about it: I’m paying the mortgage as a freelance writer. “You know this is going to delay the sale of the house and screw up the price,” I said. He grimaced. “What can we do?”
A Fragile Peace
We started talking about anxiety—ironic considering how much of it we had already caused each other. I told him, sore throat rising, that I was afraid I had the thing. France isn’t really testing unless you present grave symptoms, but I had to admit my dates with Adriene had gotten really labored in the last few days. He rolled his eyes a little, but I described the shortness of breath, the dry cough, the fatigue, and the dizziness and reminded him of the contagion. “I have to act as if I’ve got it and probably do, which means you do, too.” Not that we’ve had any physical contact, gross, but we have only one refrigerator and we haven’t exactly been scrubbing down the handle. He said he was going shopping and asked me if I needed anything from the store. The kids were on their way over from where they’d be spending the week, and he needed last-minute supplies. These were the most words we’d exchanged in at least six months.
I told him, sore throat rising, that I was afraid I had the thing.
When the kids arrived with their mom, a tough-as-nails bon vivant I’ve always really liked, my ex laid down the law: strict handwashing, no visits to friends’ houses, and so forth. Relieved to hear some adult responsibility, I figured it was my turn, so I popped downstairs to say I was starting to suspect I had it. The kids were fascinated. The headline event, and we may be right in it! Ça fait du buzz! They told their friends, whose parents called my ex. He tried to allay their concerns, embarrassed at being part of the spectacle, but this morning he started coughing horribly, too.
So when he asked, I showed him where the Tylenol was and told him he could find the thermometer on my bed. He had enough energy to put together a meal for the kids this afternoon. Since we’re on the same schedule, we sat at the table and ate together, me with my little half a Cornish game hen on its last day before it goes bad, them with their defrosted tuna steaks and my ex’s ratatouille. He offered me some of their ratatouille, which he always made so well. It wasn’t easy making eye contact with him, but it was such a relief to be able to share a meal without hiding, I soldiered through.
I write this a few hours later from the well-circulating air of the living room, where I am on the couch with my computer on my lap. I can hear my ex eating cereal one room over, the crunch interspersed with a rattling cough. When we are both done with our respective tasks, I will offer him a spare pair of my own glasses. I just remembered that we actually have the same prescription.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for Air Mail based in Paris