Nothing Left But Air


Leigh Curran

In 1973, I saw an up-and-coming actor in a movie and thought: ‘I could go for him – smart, funny – unconventionally handsome – exactly the way I like my preppies.’

At the same time, he saw me in a TV commercial and, frightened of his bad boy tendencies thought: ‘I could settle down with her – wholesome, lively – traditional but … not.’

By pure fluke, we met a month later at a dinner party in Manhattan. The soul connection was instantaneous and quickly followed by a picnic in Sheep’s Meadow; making love on his rollaway and reading Lord of the Rings by the fire in my family’s rustic cabin on a mountaintop.

Then the man of my dreams got scared – which scared me so, before I met him at Radio City to watch starving bears in the Russian Circus, I got stoned. At intermission he had shame in his eyes.

“I don’t think I love you,” he said.

But instead of thanking him for his candor, bravely turning on my heels and stalking into the night – I spoke from the freedom of my altered state.

“You don’t know what love is.”

And, to my surprise, he smiled.

“Thanks for saying that,” he said. “You could be right.”

And so our course was set. I, the teacher – he, the student – at least where love was concerned.

We lived together for four years before we got married. Periodically his uncertainty raised its head. I encouraged him to own it – move through it into our soul connection because if there was one thing I knew: we were meant for each other. He loved that I believed in our potential.

Six months after our wedding, however, he left home to make a movie, indulged in a one-night stand with an extra and got her pregnant. He begged me not to leave so I dedicated myself to owning the upset and moving through it to our soul connection while the baby’s mother sued my husband for paternity coming back annually for more and more money.

After eight years, neither my husband nor I had cultivated the wisdom to handle the guilt, anger and despair so we separated and eventually divorced.

It took forever for my feelings, initially dominated by rage, sorrow and juicy, self-righteous vitriol – and my mind, which clearly understood my exploding life was the making of me – to come together in a way that left me feeling pretty good about my new life on the west coast while my now-ex stayed in the east to make an honest daughter of his child by marrying her blousey (so I’d heard) mother.

Okay, that sucked – but my ex, who I was occasionally in touch with, was not a bad man – stupid, maybe, where women and love were concerned – but not bad. Until he moved his wife – now pregnant with their second daughter – into a house at the foot of the mountain where I grew up; where my family had summered for over 100 years; where my brother ran a soccer camp for kids; where my cousin was the second selectman and my mother lived in a managed care facility barely a mile down the road.

When the gossip about my ex’s new purchase reached me in LA, I fired off an indignant letter ordering him to stay off the mountain and away from my family.

I pay my taxes, he fired back – I can live wherever I want.

And so began my Vow of Silence. Awkward when visiting my family and shopping in the town’s only grocery store – so, just in case I ran into him, I armed myself with irrefutable put downs that left him and his wife ashamed and speechless in the frozen food section.

Eventually, I grew tired of regurgitating the hurt that kept me connected to the never-ending end of my already ended marriage. So I went inward to meet the final challenge of this test of tests – forgiveness.

Over ten years, my Vow of Silence moved from stony to defiant to: what-an-asshole! to: he is who he is – to: whatever. And right as I was about to release him into lessons learned, he sent an email with one word in the subject line: Help!

Instantly, the idea of him being in trouble felt … delicious. So much for forgiveness. Instantly I imagined his wife stabbing him with his medieval broadsword. So much for love.


October, 2010 (he loved dates)

Dear Leigh, Do you have our original marriage license and divorce decree? I need to start collecting social security – don’t ask.

After a ten-year silence, no: How are you? No: Hope you’re well. So typical.

Yes, I replied curtly.

Could you Fed Ex them?

Annoyed as I was by his e-mail, I had to admit it was timely. I’d recently learned I could collect spousal Social Security because we’d been married over ten years and, while doing so, mine would keep accruing.

Actually, I’m coming to Connecticut in a week to visit my mother so why don’t I bring them and we’ll go to Social Security together? I need to apply, too.

So we agreed to meet at the information booth in Grand Central. By the time I got off the airport bus at 42nd and Lex, I figured I’d be spending the 2½ hour train ride to Wassaic listening to his acting credits. Well, if things got boring I’d ask something personal – that’d shut him up.

I pulled out my cell.

“I’m by the clock – where – ?”

“Oh,” he said as we backed into each other.

“Well …” I stammered as we hugged carefully.

“Look at you,” he said – his arms warm and tweedy.

“Look at you,” I countered pulling back.

“I’m fat,” he said.

“I see that.”

“How the hell are you, Kiddo?”

I didn’t care for the Kiddo part but let it go figuring he’d turn the conversation in his direction any minute. But he just stood there.

“How am I?”

“Yes – you.” he said as we bought our tickets. “I heard you met someone.”

“Yes. A woman. She came with two sons, two dogs and a cat. I never looked back.”

“Good for you,” he said as we ran toward the train.

‘Good for me what?’ I thought privately. ‘Finally meeting someone so he didn’t have to feel guilty anymore?’

He pulled me into one of the older commuter cars – wider seats. He knew his trains. We sat side-by-side.

“I hope she knows how lucky she is,” he said.

‘Uch!’ I thought, ‘Why is he looking at me with … If he makes a pass … ‘

The train pulled out of the station. The conductor punched our tickets – chatted with my ex who introduced me as “the one that got away.”  Bullshit makes me impatient so when the conductor left I switched the conversation to Social Security.

“Why do you need it?”

“She spends all my money,” he said.

“Oh, god … my partner… same kind of thing – but, unlike you, I’m a tight wad.”

He put his hand on mine and said:

“There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think of you.”

How long had I imagined him saying that? And how long had I imagined replying:

“Not me … sorry.”

But there he was – open, vulnerable … No apparent agenda. I lowered my eyes – embarrassed by the twisty feeling in my heart.

“What?” he asked.

“You know how it is when you love someone,” I said, “you have a connection that’s special to the two of you – and when it ends … it’s gone … for good. I’ve missed -”

“This!” said my ex moving his hands back and forth between our hearts. “Just this!”

I bit my lip – quietly flustered. There was no explanation for the person sitting opposite me except he’d fathered two daughters who must’ve made being smart and female less … well, threatening? … because he didn’t seem afraid of himself anymore – or me – I could ask him anything – even:

“Your wife – do you love her?”

“No,” he said stashing his train ticket in his shoulder bag. “I’ve told her.”

‘Just like you told me,’ I thought. ‘How fucked is that?’

I unbuttoned my overcoat filling with sadness for my ex who’d inhabited both his marriages with one foot out the door.

“Why do you stay?” I asked.

“The kids.”

“But they’re practically grown.”

His shoulders slouched as he looked at trees whipping by the window.

“I couldn’t do that to them,” he said quietly, “I just couldn’t.”

And whether I agreed with him or not he was being so totally honest – so purely himself that all I could do was hold his hand and wonder at his hard won authenticity.

My ex took my bag as we disembarked in Wassaic. As he placed it carefully in the trunk of his car, I realized we’d arrived on the other side of pain and suffering to liberate our soul connection. I smiled as he held the car door open – happy for both of us. Then, as I took my seat, our eyes locked and, in that moment, our hearts relaxed making way for a newer, wiser love – free of projections and expectations – the kind of love that just is and always will be – even when nothing’s left of us but air.

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