My wife left me recently, and I didn’t know what to do.
All right, it wasn’t permanent but that didn’t make me feel any less untethered. Sarah had been planning a trip to Australia to visit our younger son during a junior semester abroad. But then Asher succumbed to a bacterial infection in his gut while starting an excursion to the Outback – that’s all Sarah needed to send her protective instincts into overdrive, and her bags were packed and her Qantas ticket rebooked. She was gone in a flash.
For most of our 37-year marriage, I was the one taking off for business, though rarely for longer than a few days. But more and more Sarah is now the world traveler – Israel, Scandinavia, Bermuda, Atlanta, Los Angeles – often on a mission for our kids or to travel with them. Her absence leaves me at loose ends and reminds me how boring and dependent I’ve become.
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 tell myself, or have dinner out with just the newspaper for company, wander to Brooklyn, hit some jazz clubs. Back when I really 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, and still be up for more. Then I remember: that was in 1976 and I’m out of practice.
So, even with an empty nest and no one to report to but the dog, I gravitate back to our apartment after work, where I answer after-hours emails in my boxers and read the paper without trying to fake a conversation with another person. Who wants to take an uptown subway or taxi at 11 O’clock! As for a jaunt to Brooklyn – maybe next weekend.
I thought I’d watch some HBO documentaries and a Steelers game. But alas, I can’t operate our remote control or Apple TV – Sarah’s taken over that function for our nightly entertainment. I repeatedly pressed the select button and still saw a screen of snow. So, it was back to You Tube 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 family’s around.
Since Sarah bolted she hadn’t time to prepare her usual menu of tasty meals to tide me over – pots of pasta, vegetable soup with ginger and spectacular chicken dishes. 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 take-out 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. It reminded me of my early days in New York, when my Con Ed bill was turned off for months and I used the oven as a storage bin for my running shoes.
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, who by now was staying at the Four Seasons in Sydney with a recuperating Asher. “That’s probably the flowers – you need to throw them out,” she instructed, 14 hours ahead. She was right – the long-stemmed purple alliums had turned putrid right under my nose.
As her days away added up, I could tell I was receding into a no-impact zone. I let the mail go uncollected (Sarah pays all our bills), avoided the dry-cleaning pick-up and told our doorman I didn’t need the packages of whatever that Sarah had ordered online. I felt dutybound to stay with the dog rather than eat out or take in a show or museum. 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 Asher 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 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?” (ah, I think it was peanut butter.)
Although Sarah usually goes to sleep hours after I do, we typically meet somewhere in the middle of the bed around 3 AM, which is exactly when I awoke each night disoriented in the vastness of our king-size mattress. A rare autumn thunderstorm raged one night and I knew the dog would be shivering in his caged nest, so I pulled him into bed on top of me, more in need of physical contact than he was.
A potential crisis arose – we had a new dishwasher scheduled for delivery. Sarah talked me through it but the level of planning was excruciating, involving a certificate of insurance and multiple calls to PC Richard explaining our building’s restricted hours for outside workers. And no, I wouldn’t stay home between 9 AM-3 PM, but I had to leave a bundle of cash on the foyer bureau for the installers. I understood why Sarah never got anything done on her days off from work.
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 and the new dishwasher yet to be run. “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.”
Finally, with Asher on the mend (and following a mother-son tour of Tasmania), Sarah circled the globe and returned, none too soon since I’d run out of tuna and the chick peas had gone bad. Plus, we were short on paper towels and I was clueless on how to order more via Amazon Prime – it’s been ages since I stepped foot in Duane Reade for supplies.
Now, we are back on our shared rhythm. My nutrition has improved and I’m using real dishes again instead of paper plates. The sight of a chopping board covered with celery and carrots is thrilling. I don’t mind that all the lights are on and my pants hung up in the closet. 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 and I don’t have to force myself to stay awake past 11 PM for the dog’s last walk. Having her home has taught me an important lesson – I’m still a stick-in-the mud, but I am whole.
Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.
Note: an abridged version of this article appeared in The Week on October 31, 2018: https://theweek.com/articles/803925/wife-have-been-married-37-years-lost-without