Modern Love Podcast: The Right to Fail at Marriage

Modern Love Podcast: The Right to Fail at Marriage

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miya lee

From The New York Times, I’m Miya Lee.

dan jones

And I’m Dan Jones. This is the Modern Love podcast.

miya lee

Today’s episode is about divorce and about how things can break, even if you have the best intentions and make the best effort.

dan jones

Yeah, it’s about the equality of love, but also the equality of heartbreak.

miya lee

The essay is called, “New Hope, New Pain, Same Old Divorce.”

dan jones

And it’s both written and read by Cameron Esposito.

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cameron esposito

One of the last things I did before leaving the home we had made together was pull the 5-foot portrait of our faces out of the closet. What is one supposed to do with oversized portraiture in the event of adversity? The picture was a gift bestowed by network executives when we became the first married same-sex couple to co-star in and co-create a television show, “Take My Wife.” It went up on our wall as a joke. Who would ever hang such a gaudy object?

But I quickly got used to it. I love that gaudy object, I thought, sipping seltzer from one of our Mrs. Highball glasses. I got those at Crate and Barrel, where I marveled that they were selling equality ephemera, like Mrs. and Mrs. ring dishes. I already had a ring dish. I never took my ring off. Instead, I went with the highball glasses. So pardon my surprise when a few years later, there I was, ringless, pulling a giant photo of my gay face from our closet. Well, my closet. Ugh. I’m not going to make that closet joke.

After they moved out — that’s a singular “they” — the closets stayed our closets in my mind, even if now only populated by my stuff. The spaces where their things had been seemed to glow, as if lit by the sun of my sadness. Here’s where the “The L Word” DVDs were. And this cleaner-than-the-rest rectangle of wall was formerly covered by an art print they got in college. It was like living in a relationship pain museum. I was the docent giving tours to no one.

I hate this divorce because I really loved being married. And I hadn’t rushed into marriage. I waited 13 years and 10 partners to marry the person I thought I would be with until one of us croaked, or, preferably, until we croaked simultaneously at 90, holding hands and listening to Tegan and Sara.

Back in 2004, I sat on the steps at Boston City Hall with my then-girlfriend, watching and cheering as a steady trickle of pioneering newlyweds emerged victorious.

archived recording

Tonight, gay couples throughout Massachusetts are celebrating a day many thought might never come.

cameron esposito

— the first legally married same-sex couples in the whole country. 22 years old and a week from college graduation, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Should we just do it?” She was the woman whose kiss opened my eyes to my own queer heart. But ever rational, she said no. I didn’t push for us to tie the knot. The mood was powerful, but I felt fairly certain pre-graduation marriage wasn’t for me. We split within a year, which felt impossible at the time.

A few girlfriends later in 2008, I also didn’t marry the woman I loved. We met when she was on a student visa, which turned into a work visa, which then was set to expire. By the time an immigration lawyer said there was no way to extend her stay, we were living together. We couldn’t legally marry in Illinois, where we lived. And any pre-federal marriage benefits wouldn’t have qualified her for a green card anyway. She went home to another continent, and I briefly followed her there, where we could have been married, where I could have stayed.

But I came back. My standup career was blooming in Chicago, and I chose standup, which is where, in 2010, I met my future spouse at a standup show. We started as co-workers, became friends. I fell hard, committed harder. And soon we moved to Los Angeles. The day DOMA was overturned, my father heard it on the radio and pulled over on his way to work to call us with congratulations.

A few months later, on top of a mountain we could hike to from our beloved starving artist apartment, my future spouse got down on one knee, and I said yes.

We married two years later at a rock club alongside friends, family and a buffet of Chicago-style hot dogs.

When pronounced spouse and spouse, we raised our clasped hands, just like I’d seen those first legally married queer couples do over a decade before. After our first dance, we stayed on the dance floor all night. Friends and family kept asking how long we had practiced our slow dance — the spinning, flicking, flinging, and dipping. We hadn’t. That’s just how well-suited we are, I thought. And we were both in suits.

I was 35. I didn’t marry too young or commit because of extenuating circumstances. I took my time, chose well and was the best gay I could be along the way — out, proud and social justice-minded with an aggressively queer haircut. I fought for our space and our rights alongside so many others. And in the end, none of that kept my marriage together. Somehow, the only part of my Catholic upbringing that seems to have survived my youth is the feeling that divorce is wrong, preventable and my fault.

So I’ve wondered: Should I have been gayer, waited longer, chosen not to date so I wouldn’t have to feel this pain, married everyone I dated so this wouldn’t be such a shock? Humiliating as this is for me to admit as an artist, I grew up in a seriously stable home. My parents have been together for over 50 years, are best friends and share one pair of gardening clogs.

I have no frame of reference for dissolution, except for what I’ve seen in movies. And there isn’t a Beyoncé song about being two independent adults who share a friend group, a business interest, and a button-down shirt collection, but can’t make it work. Do you know how scary it is to exist beyond the edge of the Beyoncé catalog? Terrifying.

A lot of that terror comes from fear that I wasted the moment in which I get to live. My adulthood lined up with the fastest civil rights movement in history, one that applies to me directly. I expected strides in my personal life to match our strides in freedom. I expected to perfectly navigate marriage like some sort of a lesbian phoenix that never stops rising. Then I remembered the phoenix combusts again and again. Maybe the Icarus story is more appropriate. All I know is, my wings broke, I’m tired and my life isn’t what I thought it would be. For the first time, I am down for the count.

I took the initial rejection of my queerness by family, friends and my faith and used it to become famously gay. My past is rife with moments when I got cut from the swim team and the next year made captain, or, more seriously, wrote an hour of material about my own sexual assault to raise money for rape crisis intervention. My life has been typified by my obsession with being a survivor, the comeback kid. But this year has been a full stop.

I miss the person I trusted with my squishy, small inner self. And I miss the safety that came with being an example of queerness done right in our outside-the-home life. I can’t sleep. When I do, I relive the loss in my dreams. In my waking, I drag myself from place to place, unable to force a purpose or a lesson or a next chapter. This is the year of my life when I put an Alka Seltzer into a La Croix to see if the extra bubbles would help with my nervous indigestion, when I downed a dose of my dog’s CBD oil during particularly bad insomnia, and when I took a spoon carving class to see if spoons and carving could solve my pain.

I guess, in some ways, this is what I was fighting for — the right to be queer and human, to have the privileges straight people enjoy, like the privilege to be imperfect and fail. My queerness lives within a larger history of adaptation over perfection. Ours is a history marked by new kinds of families, new kinds of trauma, new kinds of healing, new pronouns, new moments of hope, and new types of pain. We are chosen family. We are friends with our exes. We are marked by lives filled with many loves.

We are human. I am human, knocked down and flawed and sad and gay and proud and sometimes free.

The Mrs. glasses are gone. The ring is off.

The giant portrait is in storage, because how can you throw something like that out? But at least my closet feels like it’s truly mine. And maybe in the future, I’ll share it again.

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miya lee

Cameron is sharing her closet again, this time with her new wife, Katy Nishimoto. The couple was recently married at their home in Los Angeles.

dan jones

After the break, we’ll hear a Tiny Love Story about a small gesture that helped to heal the wounds of divorce.

miya lee

Hi, Gayle.

gayle brandeis

Hi.

miya lee

How’s it going?

gayle brandeis

Good. How are you doing?

miya lee

Pretty well. This is one of my favorite Tiny Love Stories ever.

gayle brandeis

Aw, thank you.

I’m Gayle Brandeis, and I wrote the Tiny Love Story, “Here’s a Chair for You.” I was excited for my eldest son’s engagement party. I was also nervous, having not seen my ex-husband in five years. Mid-celebration, I looked up from my cup of cold coconut soup to see my eight-year-old son Asher — from my second marriage — carry a chair over to my ex, who was standing next to his second wife. My ex startled at the sudden chair behind him. Then he turned to Asher, a child who wouldn’t exist had I not broken my ex-husband’s heart, and smiled.

miya lee

So lovely. You wrote that your son Asher would not have existed had you not broken your ex-husband’s heart. Can you tell me the story behind that?

gayle brandeis

Sure. I had been with my first husband for 20 years, starting from when I was 19. We met when I was a sophomore in college. And we were together for 20 years. But in that time, I was growing and changing. And I realized that I wasn’t the same person who had fallen in love with him. And I had this unusual experience where I took my daughter to an audition for a play. And the assistant director asked me if I wanted to audition, too, because they needed more adults in the production, and I ended up with the lead role.

miya lee

Wow.

gayle brandeis

And — to my shock.

miya lee

Amazing. What play was it?

gayle brandeis

It was “Annie, Get Your Gun.” So I played Annie Oakley.

miya lee

OK.

gayle brandeis

You know, who’s very unlike me. I’m a really quiet, shy person. And here I was, playing this rootin, tootin’ sharpshooter. It just brought me way out of my comfort zone. And the whole experience helped me realize I was capable of more than I gave myself credit for. And so I just felt these shifts inside of me. And interestingly, the man who played my co-star is my husband now.

And I had no sense that something like that would happen someday. But there was a scene when he said, “I’m going to marry you, Annie.” And there was a voice inside of me that said, “Yes, you are,” which is so weird, because there was no reason to think that was the case.

miya lee

Wow.

gayle brandeis

I had had these sort of hidden reservations about my marriage for a while that I hadn’t realized. And I started acknowledging the things that I had not been allowing myself to really face in my own marriage. And it was a big surprise to my husband —

miya lee

Wow.

gayle brandeis

— at the time, my first husband, that I was unhappy. He was pretty blindsided by the whole move away from him.

miya lee

Yeah.

gayle brandeis

So we just kind of completely drifted away from each other. And then when this engagement party came around, I felt really nervous about seeing him and having not even heard his voice for five years.

miya lee

And so what was it like to see him for the first time after so long?

gayle brandeis

Well, it was not just an engagement party. It was a Laotian engagement ceremony as well. My daughter-in-law’s parents are from Laos. And they had this wonderful traditional ceremony. And I was running late. And as soon as I got in the door, I had to participate in the ceremony, where I had to stand side by side with my ex-husband. And so we stood side by side. And we had to walk into the house. It was my daughter-in-law’s parents’ house. And we presented these offerings to our daughter-in-law-to-be’s parents.

We said a quick hello, but didn’t really talk to each other at that point, and then sort of went our separate ways at the party — which was just a beautiful backyard party. And just happened to look over, and I had been trying not to look toward my ex-husband very much during the time, just because it made me nervous to see him.

And I saw this beautiful scene of my little eight-year-old son just giving this gesture of kindness — carrying this seat over to the man who had been my husband — so my ex-husband could sit next to his wife. And seeing my ex-husband smile at this boy, who, like I say in the piece, wouldn’t exist had I not stepped away from that marriage, it felt very healing.

miya lee

Yeah. And so then what happened next?

gayle brandeis

Something in my heart just kind of relaxed at that point, where I felt like these two parts of my life could weave together in a way, that there could be a bridge between us. And it was so beautiful that my son created that bridge, just through this little, sweet, simple act of generosity, so that once we got to the wedding it felt like everyone was happy to be in the same space. And it was just such a beautiful celebration of love, so beautiful and healing.

miya lee

Thank you so much for sharing all this.

gayle brandeis

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a true pleasure.

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miya lee

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero with help from Hans Buetow and Elyssa Dudley. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. The executive producer is Wendy Dorr. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel.

dan jones

This week’s essay was written and read by Cameron Esposito. And Gayle Brandeis wrote our Tiny Love Story.

miya lee

Special thanks to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Vicki Merrick, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick, Choire Sicha and Ryan Wegner at Audm.

dan jones

I’m Dan Jones.

miya lee

And I’m Miya Lee. We’ll be back next week with more stories from Modern Love.

dan jones

Thanks for listening.

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