06/04/2013 05:53 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Shopping for Husbands

Part One of Three

When my husband Jack and I got together more than twenty years ago, it was in a time when virtually every other marriage was ending in divorce, stats so terrible they'd engendered their own grim humor:

You could shop for your next husband, it was said, in the produce aisles of the Berkeley Bowl. Made sense, ours being such a foodist town that the Bowl and Monterey Market were like church to us.

I'd seen him around, knew him by reputation, but even the loud syllables of his name -- JACK! SHOE! MAKER! -- completely terrified me. Bespectacled, beard and thinning hair cropped short, he'd stand silently at the back of a reading at Cody's on Telegraph, arms folded across his chest, listening carefully. Unapproachable, he seemed to inhabit a place of such exalted literary excellence I guessed it'd take some map written in disappearing ink in a half-forgotten language to find your way there.

Jack and his partner Bill Turnbull had adopted that standoffish formality -- suit coat, dress shirt, tie -- as office style for North Point to counter whatever woo-woo rep might derive from their press's being located in Berkeley. East Coast publishing does tend to marginalize and dismiss anything from the fringy West, or The South, or Midwest, or anywhere, in fact, that isn't Midtown Manhattan or two or three streets in Boston.

And while Bill and Jack were deadly serious about literature, they were not self-serious, as I discovered. The staff had two subscriptions to People and threw wild and raunchy Friday parties and they'd bought my book, which I guess they guessed was funny.

It was when I saw that Jack's license plate read NOPOINT that I began to fall in love with him.

By the late 1980s, Jack had been through several revolutions in personal style. A decade earlier, during his longhair days, he'd cut a wide swath through the bureaucratic world of letters when appointed to the NEA, serving alongside such lights as Toni Morrison, Reynolds Price, and Ernie Gaines, playwrights Romulus Linney and Edward Albee, poets Maxine Kumin and William Stafford.

He became chairman of the Literature Panel at age 31.

The main job of that august body, in his later telling, seemed to be meeting in good hotels in various interesting cities a couple times a year to drink heavily and talk about literature. It was Jack, full dark beard, wild hair past his shoulders, buck knife affixed to his belt, who single-handedly kept their group from being seated at the toniest of brass plaque restaurants in Our Nation's Capitol: No Tie? No Jacket? No Effing Service for you, Mr. Renegade Literary Upstart.

Jack and I worked on Failure to Zigzag for two years before North Point published it. Over time I got that he was as shy and personally reticent as he was intellectually self-confident. It was from others I learned that he and his wife Victoria had separated, the kind of insider knowledge you wish you didn't know, as it's so much easier to idealize those you idealize if you don't see them as being as flawed and fallible and human as you are.

They'd been together since they were teens, had two boys who were nearly grown, their now-faltering marriage an institution. Theirs was a partnership of such long-standing that their house on Colusa was famous as the most immaculate hippie pad anyone had ever seen and it was there they'd hosted private poetry readings for Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan and Michael Palmer.

But now they'd moved up the hill to a stunning house with a three-bridge view, and it did sometimes seem that an apparent ascendency such as this might trigger a marriage's failure, as if the weight of such heights of success caused its domestic structure to buckle.

Their older son Sean, was the first to move out, then Demian, and shortly after, Vicki too packed up and was gone. Our mutual friend Ross Feld called to tell me Jack was occupying a half-empty house, sitting on a folding chair huddled over a space heater in the kitchen, smoking Marlboros and listening to Giants' games.

Do something, Ross demanded.

Such as what? I asked.

Invite him over for dinner, Ross said.

I may have called, Jack may have answered but he'd also have hung up the moment he heard it wasn't Vicki calling to tell him she was moving back home. He later said he'd hypnotized himself into a certain system of belief, his faith in that relationship so fragile, that a busy signal alone would have caused her to change her mind.

Tomorrow: Part Two "The Accelerated Females"