This article is an excerpt from Hurricane Lessons: A Late in Life Coming Out Story by Katrina Anne Willis.
When you begin the end of a 25-year marriage, you step into a black hole of unknowns. You vow at the beginning to be the best divorced couple in the history of divorced couples. You promise to amicably co-parent the kids in the same home until they all leave for college. You take the master bedroom, he’ll move to the basement. He tells you that if you someday meet a woman you want to marry, he wants to walk you down the aisle. He promises you will always be family, that he’ll ensure his family knows and abides by this. You vow to remain best friends. You look forward to dancing together at future weddings and holding each other at shared funerals. You have big plans. You believe in them.
You know you’ve disappointed him. You’ve upended his world.
Then reality hits, and everything starts to come apart at the seams. It begins with half-truths and moves on to full-fledged lies. It starts with hurt and morphs into fury. And one day, you find yourself calling him a lying motherfucker—because he is. And he calls you a screaming bitch—because you are. And the hands that once so lovingly held all four of your babies are now on your shoulders, shoving in anger and rage. He screams in your face, spit flying into your eyes, your mouth. You run from the driveway into the house, threatening to call 911 if he touches you again. You remember the windshield he once broke with his fist when you were younger, the walls that absorbed his knuckles, retaining their outline. Then you hold your breath as you stumble under the weight of his fury, afraid of what comes next. He has never put his hands on you this way before. Later, he says he was just trying to get past you, but you saw the tight clench in his jaw, and the shaking, barely contained rage of his fingertips burned your skin. You can still feel the heat.
And you realize, you never really knew him. The totality of this man that you shared so many years with. The high school sweetheart with the mullet. These pieces of him. These parts. You know, of course, there were elements of him that you loved, and you understand he felt the same about you. But it’s these other pieces that were buried until now, the bitter, hateful, vindictive pieces. These are the ones you throw at each other, hoping the jagged edges stick. And hurt. And draw blood. You are afraid of your own anger, but you cannot stop it. You recognize your own tight jaw, your teeth grinding, your desire to hit back. The rage rolls off both of you in dark, viscous waves, and he lists all the ways you disappointed him over the years.
You know you’ve disappointed him. You’ve upended his world. Twenty-five years earlier, you told him till death do us part and you’re not dead yet. But there is a part of you that has died—the part that subconsciously pretended to be who you were not for 46 years. You understand he is devastated, wounded, bleeding, and raw. But there is no way he can be surprised. He’s the one who used to say, “If you leave me, you’re going to leave me for a woman, aren’t you?” He’s the one who told you gently, “If you need to find a girlfriend, go find a girlfriend. I can be many things to you, but I can’t be that.”
He is invited for dinner, for concerts, for parties, for weekends. You are not invited.
And the one who forever and always said he fully supported and would stand by you as you came out of the closet, owned and lived your hidden, internally shameful sexuality, the one who said it would be a long, long time before he would be able to love someone else and then immediately and wholly and unapologetically found his solace in another woman’s bed. And the one you used to love becomes the one you now loathe. And you wonder, How many other lies were there? How many other manipulations? What other false narratives did he control? And you know they don’t matter now, not when the end of your duality is so close, not when the lawyers have already been called and the retainers paid. But still they burn in your chest, these unanswered questions.
So you pour a glass of wine while you prepare dinner for your beautiful teens and pre-teens, the innocent victims of this unplanned battle, the blue-eyed ones who close their doors, turn up their music, and survive the earthquakes in their own home with The Black Keys and Twenty One Pilots. And then you pour another drink. And another. After dinner is served and the dishes are washed and the leftovers are stored, you draw a bath and pour one more, hoping to steam away the unrest. But you lay wide awake in the tub, hot thoughts swirling through your head. Guilt. Betrayal. Fear. Loneliness. You drink another glass of wine. And another, hoping that when you dry off and rest your head on your familiar pillow, your mind will shut down and sleep will come. For once.
As you pop scented bubbles between your pruning fingers, you ponder the deafening silence that radiates from those you once considered forever friends, the judgment that has taken up residence in their empty spaces. There are those who left the second you realized who you were, the moment you opened that colorful closet door. Others stayed around for a while, but in name only. He is invited for dinner, for concerts, for parties, for weekends. You are not invited. You have been erased. You have been replaced. It’s his girlfriend who smiles in the pictures with your former friends. One heterosexual white woman traded for another. Easy peasy.
His voice is gruff and insistent and void of kindness.
You then relive the argument you had with your long-distance girlfriend, the one he told you to find, the one whose heartbeat echoes within yours, when you both signed off the text conversation earlier that evening, hurt and silent. And you think about shame. Again. About your age-old abandonment wounds. About how you have blown like a hurricane through the center of so many unsuspecting lives, leaving mud and broken things in your wake.
And then you remember the OxyContin in the medicine cabinet. The pills that eased the pain in your damaged back. There are two left, so you take them both. Your head becomes cottony, and you text your best friend, your true blue, who is three hours away.
“I think I need help,” you say. “I think I need to get back into therapy,” you admit.
“Don’t wait,” she says. “Go to a stress center now. You don’t have to do this alone. Call an Uber and go.”
And the next thing you remember is your soon-to-be-ex-husband shaking you by the shoulders, demanding you wake up or he’s going to call 911. His voice is gruff and insistent and void of kindness. This is a business transaction. Your phone is on the floor, the texts from your best friend unanswered. She has called him to check on you. He has come up from his basement bedroom to fulfill her request.
Who’s the Threat?
Your mind is in a fog, the tears abundant. They fall off of you in salty waves, wetting your pillow, your hair, your sheets, trying to wash your sins away. They are fueled by remorse and regret. They carry your guilt and self-loathing into the fibers of your bed, the one you falsely shared with your then-husband, when you dreamt of women and their soft curves. Your cry comes from a place so deep within, you never knew it existed. It is feral, animal. The tears could drown you. They almost have.
At the hospital your soon-to-be-ex-husband drives you to, they ask if you want to hurt yourself, if you want to die.
“No,” you say. “I just want to sleep.”
They ask your soon-to-be-ex-husband, “Do you think she’s a threat to herself? Or to others?”
And the ultimate betrayal after you have spoken your own desire to go home, to sleep it off, to wake up tomorrow in the same home as your children: He nods.
There are armed guards outside your door then, and they tell you they are transferring you to an inpatient stress center. They have their hands on their guns, ready to subdue you with threats and force if you don’t comply. You, who saved a baby bird at age 10 with a warm light and a dropper of water and a box full of old washcloths. You, who gently rocked four babies to sleep in the middle of the night. You, who could not imagine physically harming another living creature. You, who would never consider non-compliance.
“No,” you cry. “No. I have work tomorrow. I have deadlines. I have kids.”
But the ER doctors and the man who once had your back have made the decision for you. And they dress you in scrubs because you can’t be trusted with drawstrings and earrings and shoelaces, and they tell you to hand over your phone and your jewelry, and they strap you to a bed on wheels and cover you with a blanket. They drive you, lights flashing, to another location, arms belted to your sides. But you can barely see the lights because your eyes are so swollen with tears and shock and dismay. You don’t know where you’re going. You’re just being taken away. Away from your kids. Away from your life. Snot runs into your mouth, and you are reduced to a wailing toddler with no tissues to wipe your own face.
The next morning, the resident psychiatrist walks quietly into your room, and you sit up, the waterproof mattress crunching under your hospital gown.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he says to you gently after he evaluates your mental state.
You nod. Are you agreeing that you shouldn’t be there? Are you confessing that you should?
“It was my husband. He decided.”
The kind-eyed psychiatrist touches your shoulder. “If it’s something you want to do, you can file a grievance with the ER for coercion.”
File a grievance. File a grievance. What, exactly, did that mean? What would it accomplish? Would it give you the ability to place the blame of your train-wreck life on someone else temporarily? Would it allow you to shrug some of the anvil-like guilt from your shoulders? Would it give you peace? Comfort? Release? Would a grievance help you grieve? No, it wouldn’t. You knew that. You had made this bed, and it was your responsibility to lie in it.
You nod back at the doctor, even though you knew you would not file a grievance. You could barely write your own name. “Can you release me now, since I’m not supposed to be here?” you ask hopefully.
“By law, I have to keep you here for 72 hours,” he says. “I’m so sorry. But I’ll come back first thing Wednesday morning to send you home.” 72 hours. Wednesday. (Wednesday’s child is full of woe.) Home. You understand that home no longer means what it used to. That it can never be the same.
That home is now in the hearts of your four children, wherever they may someday reside, not in the house by the lake with the swimming pool and the walk-out basement and the Labor Day weekend friends; the home he asked you to randomly leave on a Monday morning so he could bring his new girlfriend over for sex. The home where your wedding pictures still hung on the walls you painted together in cabin red and cloudy sky.
You know now that your home now is in New York City, with her.
You know now that your home now is in New York City, with her. And her soft skin. And her muscled thighs. And her ocean eyes. And her resonant laughter. And her gentle understanding. That the term “home” has been reassembled and redefined.
Your soon-to-be-ex-husband drops off books and make-up at the front desk, an act of requested, perfunctory kindness. He does not say hello. The books, they let you have. But not the make-up. The tweezers and bobby pins, too dangerous. You stay in your room, reading, sleeping. Your highly medicated suite mates shuffle by your open door, hair askew, eyes unfocused. You are a prisoner in an overpriced jail with bad food and highly encouraged group activities. You don’t participate in the group activities. You don’t belong here. You are sad. You are despondent. You are addled with guilt. You are starting over at age 46. You are lost.
You are not a threat.
Coming Out Later but Happier
You hear your name over the intercom, followed by her name. She has found you. She has called you. You race out of your room to pick up one of the four community phone lines, Judge Judy blaring from the TV, and two rows of residents in plastic chairs watching intently for the verdict. There is a collective cheer as Judge Judy slams her gavel.
And then there is her voice on the telephone, all the way from Greenwich Village, soft and deep and reassuring, and the external dissonance melts away.
“He called me and told me what happened,” she says. “I’m so worried about you. Are you okay?”
“I’m here,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere. I will not leave you.”
You nod, tears streaming, because her voice is a warm blanket, and wrapped inside it, you remember what it feels like to be covered in kindness.
“I’m here,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere. I will not leave you.”
You want to believe it, need to believe it, but others have said the same, and still, they have gone. So you choose to believe it because the choosing makes you feel happy and safe. Because the choosing is all you can control. Because you know that you choose her even if someday she chooses differently. You know that everyone gets to choose and that sometimes those choices don’t align. You know that is one of the saddest realities of the human condition.
“But you have to take care of yourself,” she says. “Promise me?”
And you do promise. Because those teens and pre-teens, the ones you grew in your body, they need you. Because she is worth it. Because you are worth it. Because life wants you whole and sturdy and strong. Because the future you thought you would have is a story that got erased from your computer’s hard drive.
But there is a new future for you to write. One vastly different from the first, but radiant and true and authentic. The one you dreamt about in your childhood bed and confessed silently but obediently day after day, years and years ago. One with pink lips and perfume and painted toenails. One with you. One with her. One with love that is soft and safe and same.