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The Moment I Knew

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Some breakups are dramatic, other decidedly less so, and others are the result of being forced to listen to really bad poetry.

In my case, it was a poem by John Donne, the long dead 17th century English metaphysical poet who was the third person in my marriage and the man who provided the decisive moment in what had to be the longest, most drawn out, overly-therapized, overly-intellectual decision to get divorced in recent memory--especially in Los Angeles.

Let me explain: My ex-husband and I were textbook over-educated and overly sincere Jewish intellectual types. We would discuss the French philosopher Jacques Derrida at dinner parties as if we knew him personally. Between us we had over 1,000 books, and we took every one of them very, very, very seriously. We had four different copies of the Iliad because they were by different translators.

We'd met in a German theology class in college, where he became annoyed with me because--while learning about Friedrich Schleiermacher's "religion of the cleavage"--I scribbled a note asking if he was a priest in said religion. He didn't laugh. Instead he picked up his notebook and turned his desk away from mine.

He was very talented at taking himself extremely seriously--so much so that at the tender age of 20, he used to unironically smoke a pipe. Apparently, when I was 19 this impressed me. Once we were married, we didn't have TV for eight years (I should mention that the first thing I did after our divorce was get cable--with HBO.)

One of the reasons we didn't have TV was my ex-husband--whom in the spirit of literary allusion, I will henceforth call "Voldemort"--spent almost all of his free time obtaining a PhD in English literature, focusing on the afore mentioned John Donne, although he had no hope of ever becoming an English professor (white men studying dead white men not being in high demand in academia these days).

Time passed, and we were turning 30. The fights devolved. I wanted children, he wanted more time to spend in the library alone. So we did what any couple of our type does: we went to therapy. We went to three therapists in three years. That's impressive even by Upper West Side standards. The trick with marriage counseling, however, is that both people have to actually want to be married. It was becoming increasingly obvious we didn't.

We drew up schedules over how much time he got to spend in the library, and how much time with me. We didn't factor chores into that schedule--that was his capitulation. I went to dinner parties alone. I pretended not to mind, and told myself this is what marriage was: compromise.

In one of our final fights he accused me of not being intellectual enough for him. This was probably true--I don't think Derrida himself would have been intellectual enough for Voldemort. He held up my disinterest in his favorite poet, John Donne, as a primary example of my shortcomings. I said I didn't know of any Donne poems which spoke to me.

In an effort to reach my philistine self, he said he would find the most erotic poem by Donne he could and read it to me. I suppose he was thinking: when searching for the lowest common denominator, go for sex. I agreed to listen with an open mind, and I meant it.

Here are a few lines from the poem he chose:

To His Mistress Going to Bed

Off with that wiry coronet and show,
the hairy diadem which on you doth grow...
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland

Um, yeah...shockingly not so erotic.

My reaction to the poem was pretty much the best case scenario as to how hot a girl is gonna get while being compared to Newfoundland.

I looked at him as he read, eyes glued to the page. Those eyes I had seen express every emotion, that face that I knew in some ways as well as--if not better than--my own, and I thought to myself: I am never going to care about John Donne. I can fake it for a while, but I really, truly and absolutely will never want to listen to these poems on purpose.

That was the moment I knew: this had far less to do with the poet himself, and far more to do with the fact that Donne possessed more of my husband's imagination than I did.

I watched him continue to recite Donne's words and thought: eventually he will look up and notice that my eyes are glossing over and he has lost my heart. But he didn't. He kept reading.

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