07/08/2011 08:28 am ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

My Husband Came Back, Now What?

There comes a point for every world traveler, however adventurous, when you wake up in your hut (or tent or yurt), and think, "Gosh, I would love to make waffles." Then, you catalogue all the stuff you'd need to pull off waffles--the iron, the mix, the whisk, the plate, the grade B maple syrup--and then you look down at your pathetic kit of eye drops, lip balm and Bactroban, and say, "I want to go home."

When my husband walked out on our fifteen-year marriage, only to return a month later, the truth of the matter is that he came home, not for me, but for waffles.

Given the bitter man who showed up at my door, life on the outside must not have been all that and a bag of chips. After the heady rush of abandoning his tired harpy wife subsided, the brutal reality of his middle-aged, non-007 life surely hit him like a sucker punch. Maybe the hot divorcee from the gym, who told him his hair was cute, when push came to shove, didn't want to move into his overpriced bachelor pad after all? Or maybe the twenty-year-old twigs dragged back from the all-night raves seemed less edgy and bedazzling over coffee? Or maybe time with our kids whittled down to half cut too deeply? Or maybe, when he needed to blow his nose, there just wasn't an appropriate place to put his snot?

Perhaps that sounds like woman-scorned conjecture. Perhaps my husband looked into our children's wet eyes, saw my DNA refracted back, and determined that our covetable family of four was something precious worth fighting for. After all, history doesn't come cheap.

After a year of ego-breaking joint-counseling, it's still maddeningly unclear what myth-busting constellation propelled my Icarus back home, but it became painfully obvious that what drove him out of our marriage in the first place would not, and could not, go away: I was still me.

No amount of reflective listening or positive spin or self-medication was going to change it: after forty-plus years, I'm pretty much a formed human being. I wasn't going to get any smarter or more charming. Without surgical intervention, I wasn't going to get any prettier. I wasn't going to become less outspoken (my New Year's post certainly didn't help). And while I could try to be less inconsiderate or put out more, it would be a conscious and temporary effort. Plus, given the wounds of my public/private humiliation, my economy-size lifetime emotional U-Haul had ballooned into a crazy caravan; surely I was even less lovable now.

In the end, I could make a beautiful home, and raise beautiful children, but fundamentally, my best friend no longer believed me to be his faithful Kimosabe, and likely never would again, not really. Without his unconditional love, hearth and home felt altogether bankrupt. And that's why, after we both spent an exhausting year trying our damnedest, I worked up the courage to leave everything that formed my grown-up reality.

As we put on a brave face and slogged through mediation, the kids sensed that our family had fallen into hospice. The party line, "Mommy and Daddy are working on becoming friends," held them until the tension in the house became unbearable. After school one snowy day, over Rick Bayless' dulce de leche cocoa, the kids pressed me hard, and unexpectedly, I veered dangerously off script. "Yes!" I blurted. "Mommy and Daddy are getting divorced, but we are always your parents, and we will always love you, and..." In slow-mo, my two angels careened into a deep, dark hole, like the skin-suit pit from Silence of the Lambs. Because of my failings, no ladder made by God or man could ever pull them back into childhood. And even more, I'd ruined hot chocolate, forever.

This moment--from a woman who has suffered miscarriages, climbed glaciers, battled lupus and addiction, learned to walk again, and survived two decades of Chicago winters--has been, by far, the hardest thing I have ever endured.

As legal maneuverings ground me into dust, I heard my über-zen pal Tracy whisper: "You have your kids seventy percent of the time; everything else is just stuff. Wish Eeyore well, and let it go." So, impulsively, I traded my fine house for better running shoes and an open door. Since my income as a writer/artist/activist/mom is virtually non-existent, my soon-to-be ex reluctantly agreed to co-sign a lease on a nearby apartment (FYI: by the time Comcast deems you a credit risk, there's no place to go but up). The very next day, taking only the chandelier and my clothes stuffed into garbage bags, I teetered down the street to my new place, like some kind of kooky Lake Shore Drive refugee.

When I'd tell some well-meaning person the news of my move and impending divorce, their face would scrunch into tortured concern, until I learned to quickly follow it with, "But no worries; it's all okay." And then, they'd smile, and chime, "Congratulations!" Inevitably, some overly intimate conversation would follow in which they'd reveal the details of their own torrid affair, hushed-impotence, or prolonged Springeresque misery. Not that I'd mind; it was soothing to know that my own marriage was, by all accounts, very good (until suddenly, it wasn't).

Here's the little secret I don't tell them: Forty days and forty nights into my new life, I'm deliriously proud of myself for leaving my marriage without some Ibsen rescue at play. Up until last year, I didn't know the difference between a 401K and 5K (forgive me Suze Orman), and I'm still not sure how I'm going hang on to my pie-in-the-sky dreams and simultaneously put real food on those imaginary tables, but I'll figure it out.

Hopefully, after the machinery of the state has run its ugly course, my husband and I will become friends again. For the kids' sake, fingers crossed. In the meantime, as he navigates his new, more authentic self, I've managed to rediscover my long-lost Charlie girl.

In my Chapter II apartment, one block and a world away, I heeded my daughter's advice, and ditched my stale designer beige for Jonathan Adler fabulousity of electric blues, chocolate brown, and an orange so vibrant it almost pulsates. Writing here, under my salvaged chandelier, amidst funky thrift store finds, and jaw-dropping art on loan from my gallery pal Jennifer Norback; I can finally breathe. The place has a good vibe. But it's not about the stuff, although the unchallenged self-expression helps: in these groovy rooms of my own, I hear Sandburg's voice: "Nothing can harm you. Unless you turn yourself into a thing of harm, nothing can harm you."

Although my sage friend Lisa promised that we'd get to the other side, I never would have believed it: from my bedroom window, each morning I wake to the dog licking my face, and the sun rising over lake Michigan. I'm alone, but less alone than I was before. On "mom's weeks," my kids, still blistered and angry, jump into my giant, pristine white bed, with sleepy eyes, and, in spite of it all, kisses. We are healing. Slowly. And then, like clockwork, the three of us stumble into our Lemon Meringue kitchen, under the shimmering glitter of a disco ball, and make waffles.