Trying to be the Good (EX) Wife

The phone rang at 6am. I groggily picked up to hear a familiar male voice on the other end. Why was my ex-husband calling me this early?

“Page, I’m sick....” He cleared his throat. “Food poisoning.”

“What?” I was slightly miffed, as I had another hour before the alarm was set to go off. 

“I might need to go to the hospital.” He mumbled something about “tuna tacos.”  

Tuna tacos? Who orders tuna tacos? I asked about his girlfriend, wondering why she couldn’t help. 

“She’s sick, too. We ate the same thing.”

At the time, I was 46 and my ex-husband, 49. His girlfriend was in her late 20s.

The first time I met her, it was accidental. Seriously, if I had planned it, I would have caked concealer under my eyes, glossed my lips with some natural-looking shade of nude, and gotten a fresh blow dry. As it happened, I met her while in my car, with an unforgiving sun streaming in my face, highlighting every wrinkle and age spot. She, of course, was backlit--and flawless. There was almost something fawn-like about her, what with her golden highlights and deep brown eyes. The last thing I expected was to like her.

But I was struck by how friendly and genuine she was during an afternoon encounter outside my ex’s house. I was dropping off our younger daughter’s book bag just as she was coming out. I spotted her before she saw me, and I debated whether or not to introduce myself. If I waited in the car a bit, she’d be gone and I could leave the backpack by the front door.

“Hi, I’m Page,” I announced, sounding a bit too much like a game show contestant. She turned toward me, probably more shocked than I was.

“Oh, heyyyyy. It’s so nice to meet you.”

I told her how much our daughter Katherine liked her (our older daughter was in boarding school at the time). Then we talked about our dogs and what good friends they’d become. “Herman loves Angus,” she cooed. Our dogs met when Angus, my black Lab, stayed there while I was away one weekend.

As we chatted, I kept wondering if she noticed I needed a lip wax. 

Aside from the lighting, though, I thought our first meeting went well. Relieved, I texted my ex and told him how much I liked her. “She thought you were nice, too,” he texted back. 

We’ve been divorced for ten years and have a very amicable relationship. When it comes to finances or glitches in our schedules, we still have occasional blow ups, but for the most part, we try to be good co-parents—and friends. We sit together at soccer and lacrosse games, school plays, parent-teacher conferences. I still like his lavender button-down shirts. He comes to my house for Christmas dinner with my parents; I go to his on Christmas Eve. No, it’s not ideal. Divorce never is. But neither is an unhappy marriage. 

Although our 11-year marriage didn’t last, we do have two amazing daughters as a result. And for that, I will always be grateful. Truly.

The thing is, everyone says a good marriage takes work. So does a good divorce.

Technically, I might have been old enough to have been the girlfriend’s mother, but, for the sake of peaceful co-parenting, I dealt with it. Plus, she was nice to our children. Pot-stirring friends often goaded me about the age difference, but my answer was pretty simple: they were happy together. And in some ways, his happiness tempered my guilt for initiating the divorce.

Enter the tuna tacos, my pound of flesh.

After taking our daughter to school, I raced to the Safeway to grab ginger-ale and other groceries. I figured I’d leave the goods at his house so he and his girlfriend could convalesce together. Heading down the snack aisle in search of Saltines, I questioned the absurdity of the situation. What was I doing, gathering Gatorade for my ex and his hottie girlfriend? 

By the time I arrived at his house, he’d left multiple texts about needing emergency room care. He’d thrown up more than a dozen times and his doctor thought he should go to the hospital. 

 I opened the front door to find him sitting--slumping, actually--on the steps with his girlfriend. She thanked me repeatedly for coming. Looking at them, I felt more like their mother than the former wife. His face was swollen and blotchy; her complexion, grayish. Her body, frail in a black sweatshirt and leggings, resembled a Giacometti sculpture. 

Luckily, the hospital is minutes away, so it was a swift trip. Still, I handed them plastic bags just in case. They both, he in front and she in back, reached to lower the windows. But the child locks were on and she squeaked, “Would you mind putting down the window, please?” 

“Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry,” I said, pressing the button. “I’m glad you’re getting some air.” Her long hair, stringy from a night of vomiting, swirled in the wind. Strangely, I felt an urge to braid it.

I pulled up to the hospital, wishing them luck. Barely stopping, I practically made them drop and roll at the entrance. I wanted to avoid the inevitable confusion. How would I explain that I’m the ex-wife bringing in the tuna-poisoned ex-husband and his girlfriend?  And even more worrisome, what if the nurses thought my ex and I were still married and the girlfriend was our daughter? I convinced myself I didn’t look old enough to be her mother, but who would want to take that chance?

Driving away, I watched in the rear-view mirror as he tenderly put his hand on the small of her back, guiding her toward the sliding glass doors. I knew they’d be okay. I knew we all would. 

Later that day, I picked up Katherine from school. As she hopped in the car, I debriefed her on the hospital trip.

“You took them both?” she asked.

“Yep. They were both too sick to drive themselves. Plus, you know Daddy would have done the same for me.” And I knew he really would have done it for me.

“Did they throw up in the car?” she asked, grimacing as she surveyed her seat. “Is it contagious?”

“No, silly. It was food poisoning--bad tuna tacos from the restaurant.”

“They always order those things! They’re disgusting. Me, I play it safe with mac ‘n cheese.”

I told her I played it safe, too, by giving them plastic bags for the car ride.

“Wow, Mommy, you’re a nice ex-wife.” 

I smiled at the thought of being a better ex-wife than wife--in sickness and in health.

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