We married 50 years ago this June -- and our ghost anniversary haunts me.
We separated right after our 20th anniversary, and divorced a few years later. But this year we would have celebrated half a century, and that merits a pause and a tribute of sorts to a love story that was, and then wasn't.
After all, dear ex, you were my first, and until I was in my forties, my only. Okay, there were summers when we may have sown an oat or two, but we were steadies from 11th grade through college.
We met on the tennis court in Miami Beach. Platinum blond and taller than just about anyone in our eighth-grade class, you had come from Wisconsin with a still-cracking, deep voice and a friendly, Midwest vibe.
I was intimidated then, in my most awkward phase. But when I interviewed you for the high school paper four years later, I asked you to a party (or did you ask me?). By then I was less awkward, you were Beach High's "Mr. Wonderful," and I was smitten even though you wouldn't dance (and never much did).
You pinned me in our junior year at college, and I wore two tiny gavels from my sorority and your fraternity -- symbols of mutual leadership and, I surmised, meant-to-be togetherness -- on my otherwise modest breast. We got engaged right before we graduated, as so many did back then: innocents from another era, willing, able, but unknown to us, unready.
We married in a little room at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Grandma wore neon-blue shoes, I was too nervous to eat the roast beef dinner, and I looked thin and virginal in my rented dress.
We indulged in two honeymoons. The first one, along the California coast, ended in Acapulco, with our own hibiscus-filled pool. And soon after, a two-month caper through Europe in a British-racing-green MGB retrofitted for your lanky frame. We slept over alpine vistas and ate garlicky snails and pressed duck washed down with good wine; damn lucky kids, traipsing through museums and picturesque villages.
We had no clue that our fairy-tale beginning would be the apex of our marriage.
Your dad was an immigrant who had gobbled an unpeeled banana off the boat from Russia via Shanghai, and he went on to live the American dream, gifting Cadillacs, like Elvis. He died when you were 15, leaving you able to remain a student until you were 30 -- except when you served in Vietnam when our firstborn son was an infant, in 1968.
When you returned you earned your PhD, we moved to London, and we created another fine son. And then we spent most of our money to settle in a turreted stone house north of New York City on two-and-a-half-acres. Our neighbors were the Rockefellers, and I felt like I was dreaming.
Spiffy indeed. (Thank you, father-in-law I never met.) But now house poor, living off your professor's salary, I felt increasingly isolated as you commuted an hour each way to the city, and closed the door to your home office right after dinner. We slowly grew apart, grew quiet, leaned on others.
And when my best friend committed suicide and your younger brother died of cancer -- both in their late 30s -- we realized, full blast, life's uncertainties, and that our tender union, built on teenage hopes and dreams and trust funds, was vanishing along with our youth.
And on our 20th anniversary we dined at an inn, and after the chocolate soufflé you gave me an antique mesh purse, and teary-eyed, whispered that you wanted a divorce.
When we told our sons, the younger one said, "You're crazy." And the older one said, "It must really be bad, because I couldn't tell."
And maybe he was right. The trappings had deluded us; "the good life" had been long gone.
So time passed and we moved on and grew into our real selves. You became a loyal husband to a university president, and it was a fit. And after freelancing and soloing for many years I fell in love and married a gentle, poetic rabbi, and when he died too soon I pretty much gave up on men, or happy ever-afters.
But after many years of ups and downs, to my total surprise I had the luck to meet another wonderful man. And this time I wasn't 16 -- I was 66, and blessed to get the chance for new wedding anniversaries. (I'm currently at four years and counting.)
So, "Mr. Wonderful" ex, when I sat with you last Thanksgiving at our son's table, with all eight remarried grandparents getting along, and our granddaughters chatting away between us like in some improbable family sitcom, I thought, "We shared special moments, great kids, and things worked out pretty well in this crazy world."
And I knew that I wanted to acknowledge our might-have-been, could-have-been -- but not should-have-been -- 50th anniversary.
Cheers! Be well. Stay happy. Thanks for loving me so sweetly so long ago. And here's hoping for a might-have-been 60th!