As a 23-year-old student in a graduate school seminar, we were discussing Madame Bovary -- the scene where she licks the bottom of the glass to get every last drop of wine.
The professor was talking about her tongue and desire -- the way this flick and suck of the tongue represents that she wants more -- more than her husband, Charles, could give her. It represented her hunger.
One of the students asked, "What does hunger have to do with sex?"
I laughed -- too loud.
The professor would become my husband.
The laughter of women is bawdy, sexual, perverse, audacious. How we cackle too loudly in a restaurant when talking about ex-lovers over lunch. How we squeal and can't catch our breath when we've had some wine, and it's late at night, and the husband is not home, and the deep truth is coming out.
Five days after admitting to myself that I was gay, I went to see a therapist. I wanted her advice on how to tell my husband. "It's like I'm seeing clearly for the first time in my life," I told her. "And I want to be truthful with him about this."
She nodded, stayed silent.
And because truth lives right next to the place of laughter in me, I made a joke.
"For the first time in my life," I told her, "I realize that sex has no point."
I expected her to laugh. No point, get it?
She looked at me and took a deep breath. I had fallen in love with a woman only five days before, she said, so she advised me to take my time, end the marriage gently, and not tell my husband that I had fallen in love.
I looked at her and said, "You're telling me to lie?"
"Yes," she said. "I guess I am."
It was just what I needed to have the courage to tell the complete truth.
The truth is that, for me, sex with boys and men was always at least partly an economic operation. If I did this, I said to myself, from the age of eight after having been sexually abused, then I might get that.
And after a lifetime of lying about sex -- When was your first kiss? How old were you when you were no longer a virgin? Do you like this? Do you want to do it? --I was finally ready to tell the truth.
My husband and I went for a walk in our neighborhood after dinner that night. It was getting dark. We were not even to the end of the block when he said, "What is it?"
What he meant was What's wrong with you? Why is everything I do wrong? Why don't we laugh anymore?
I took a deep breath, stopped walking, turned to him and said, "I'm gay."
He stopped, looked into my eyes, held the stare.
I did not blink. I did not look away. I said nothing.
Finally, he turned and started walking again. I could see the twin rivers of grief and acceptance flowing down through his still supple, basketball player's body.
"Is it Susanne?" he asked.
"Are you in love with her?"
"Did you sleep with her?"
And with those three yesses, my marriage was over.
We began to talk about where we would sleep -- whether he would move into his study or I would move into mine. (I moved into mine.) About how to divide childcare. About who would cook dinner.
After a few more blocks, he stopped and sobbed. I hugged him.
I said, "I love you."
He said, "I love you, too."
When we got home, our teenage daughter was in the shower. It was late -- and a school night -- so we decided not to tell her then, but to wait to tell her and her older sister together.
We could hear the shower running upstairs as we stood in the kitchen. The water sounded like tears as we talked openly for the first time in what felt to me like many years.
"I feel like we are finally talking openly," I said to him.
"Oh, please," he said, "I'm not ready to go meta on this yet. Let me just be present with it."
He paced a bit, and then said, "I hope she has a Jewish sense of humor."
And I laughed.
I laughed because she's German. I laughed because that's not funny. I laughed because I have always laughed -- from my first outburst in his class and for the past 20 years, he has always made me laugh. I laughed on our wedding day, which I considered to be the happiest day of my life. I laughed when our daughter was born, which tied our wedding day as my happiest day.
Divorce is a heartbreaking death, and sometimes we fear telling the truth in our marriages because we want to avoid the emotions of anger and sorrow. But like at a funeral when the family gathers to tell stories and laugh and face the truth of life and death together, laughter can be a balm for the heart learning to go on again after great loss. My husband gave me the gift of such laughter, and I will always be grateful to him for this.
He made me laugh. And then it was my turn to sob.
My tears competed with the sound of the water from our daughter's shower. He did not move to hug me. He stood there and let the tears fall from my eyes. This was my decision, he was thinking. He could still make me laugh. But now I had someone else who could comfort me when I cried.
The water stopped. It was eerily quiet.
Then we heard our daughter's voice from upstairs. "Can somebody bring me a clean towel?"
"I don't want her to see me like this," I whispered, the tears still falling. "Can I go?"
"Yes," he said, moving to head upstairs. "Go."