- On Being Told That Her First Husband
There was a time in my early twenties when just the title of Tess Slesinger's story "On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover" thrilled me with its world-weary sophistication. I wanted to claim more than one husband and refer casually to lovers. I wanted to live abroad (or anywhere but suburban New Jersey where I'd grown up). I believed in independence and dismissed jealousy as bourgeois possessiveness.
By the time my first husband took his first lover, I'd already realized that the excitement of travel has its limits, sophistication can be a mask for heartbreak, philosophical convictions can be a flimsy defense against actual feelings. In my late twenties and thirties, I began to value stability and fidelity over adventure. In my forties and fifties, I barely traveled, occupied with teaching and academic publications, day-to-day life with my second husband and our growing child.
Now I've arrived at a different stage in life, slowly and also rapidly, sliding into middle age and beyond almost without noticing the transition. In my sixties I've reached the time in life when retrospect and consciousness of mortality become inescapable. My story title would be "On Being Told That Her First Husband Has Died."
I was roaming the internet when I was stopped short by the discovery, almost six months after Hartmut's death. Not an American-style obituary, but a death notice from a German newspaper, with birth and death dates and names of [End Page 49] immediate family members. No mention of me, of course, or of his second wife. No reference to a fuller obituary or service. He was seventy-one. That alone was a shock. I double-checked the math. He was older than me, but could my ex-husband possibly be that old?
Even though I haven't been in touch with her for decades (easily measured by the age of my son, product of my second marriage, who just turned twenty-nine), I immediately wanted to write a condolence email to Hartmut's younger sister Margot. She was close to Hartmut, morbidly dependent on him, I thought. I came between them. Repeatedly and successfully. So I don't know why I would want to contact her now, or why she'd want to hear from me. She certainly wouldn't expect it. My story of the past would be very different from hers.
Hartmut and I met in Germany after my junior year abroad and spent a month camping in Greece. I was attracted by his intensity, his leftist political convictions, his wild long hair, his leather jacket and motorcycle. He was living in an apartment at the time with his girlfriend and Margot and her boyfriend. (His girlfriend's existence didn't really register with me.) He came to the U.S. to visit me the following winter and ended up staying. For the next few years we moved back and forth between the U.S. (where I finished my university degree and later started another) and Germany (where he was studying for a degree he never finished). We saw Margot daily in Germany, but she never traveled to the U.S. Or did she come to see him in Ithaca after we broke up? She might have.
After so much time, it's hard to remember. I can recall frequent arguments with Hartmut over Margot and her demands on his time in Göttingen. I remember one fight in particular when she'd just moved into a new studio apartment and wanted Hartmut to come and unroll her carpet. She was bitter that her older lover had to take the time to do it. ("He's much busier than you are. He's an important man.") Was I overly possessive of Hartmut's time and attention, or is that the kind of thing that happens in lots of relationships? In retrospect, it seems quite ordinary. I resented Margot and admired her too. She was serious about politics. She engaged in serial doomed romances that required a great deal of discussion. She had upscale...