My wife left me recently, and I didn't know what to do.
All right, it wasn't permanent. Sarah simply went to Australia to visit our son. (We've been married for 37 years, and we're still going strong.) But I didn't feel any less untethered just because her absence was temporary.
Granted, short-term bachelorhood has its perks — the unmade bed, leaving the toilet seat up, throwing my pants on the kitchen table. Such old habits are a form of reversion therapy, putting me in touch with my younger self, free of spousal judgment.
And the plans! I'll go see old friends, I told myself, or have dinner out with just the newspaper for company. I'll wander to Brooklyn, hit some jazz clubs!
It seemed plausible enough. Back when I was single I could catch a double-feature at Bleecker Street Cinema, enjoy ricotta cheesecake and iced cappuccino at Caffe Reggio in the Village, browse a record store, buy a literary magazine, walk down unfamiliar side streets, wander into a tattoo parlor or some other hangout, and still be up for more.
Then I remember — that was in 1976. I'm out of practice.
So, even with an empty nest and no one to report to but the dog, I gravitated back to our apartment after work, where I answered after-hours emails in my underwear. A jaunt to Brooklyn? Maybe next weekend.
I thought I'd at least watch some HBO documentaries and a Steelers game. But alas, in a devastating sign of my age, I couldn't operate our remote control or Apple TV — Sarah's taken over that function for our nightly entertainment. So, it was back to YouTube and iTunes for diversion — though let it be known I was free to turn up the volume on the Herbie Hancock concert videos, something I never try when my family's around.
With my wife gone, the refrigerator was mostly things in tin foil and rice. There were reserves in the freezer, but those would have required thawing and heating. I figured if I rationed the rice and added chick peas and egg whites my supply would last most of the two weeks she'd be gone and I wouldn't have to order takeout or use more than a minimum of utensils, or turn on the stove.
By Day 4, I was eating tuna from a can with pretzel sticks.
One evening I detected an awful smell in our dining room, certain it was a dead mouse. It got worse over the next few days and I mentioned it to Sarah. "That's probably the flowers — you need to throw them out," she instructed. (She was right — the long-stemmed purple alliums had turned putrid right under my nose.)
As her days away added up, I let the mail go uncollected (Sarah pays all our bills). I felt dutybound to stay with the dog rather than eat out or take in a show or museum lecture. But the truth is I was fine being home alone, doing nothing and seeing no one but our daughter, who lives nearby. I was turning into the stick-in-the-mud my parents always warned me about.
The extreme time difference meant Sarah and I talked at opposite ends of the day — she told me about the helicopter ride she and our son took and the 440-foot bridge they climbed overlooking Sydney harbor, and the farm they visited with kangaroos and wallabies eating out of their hands. I told her about my conference calls and what the dog did. But there were also big blocks of day-for-night time where we couldn't have our usual catch-ups, reporting on minutiae from the street or at work from our cells. I envisioned this is how I would be as a widower, communicating with Sarah from afar while puttering through ritualized routines.
I didn't feel like shopping for one, but dutifully purchased a challah bread for my Friday nights alone, and went through the motions of lighting candles, reciting blessings, and even singing a rousing version of "Shalom Aleichem" as if I had company — and indeed, the dog sat patiently next to me waiting for his crusty helping. I sent a photo of my solo Shabbos setting to Sarah — and she replied, "That's nice, but what did you eat?" (Peanut butter.)
I sat in the kitchen one morning with our longtime housekeeper. Edris sensed how strangely uninhabited the apartment seemed — nothing disturbed since her last visit, the refrigerator practically empty. "It's like a ghost town in here," she said in her soft Jamaican voice. She told me I'd lost weight and clucked when she noticed I hadn't changed my pants since Sarah had left. "We are lost without her," she sighed. "You are like a ship without sail."
She was right.
But now my wife is back. My nutrition has improved and I'm using real dishes again. The sight of a chopping board covered with celery and carrots is thrilling. I'm still reading the paper during dinner, but at least Sarah is beside me looking at her Kindle or talking on the phone with her mother. She's found a new Netflix series for us to watch. Life is good.
Having her home has taught me an important lesson — I'm still a stick-in-the mud, but I am whole.