HUFFPOST (FEBRUARY 11, 2014): ONE REQUEST BEFORE YOU LEAVE
How a Road Trip Set to a Beatles Soundtrack Made Me a Better Ex-Husband
BY DAVID HOPKINS
People tell me Melissa and I had the best divorce ever — almost as if they’re envious of our failed marriage and skillful dismount. Sure, my ex and I are still friends. We work together in the best interest of our daughter, no drama.
Everyone has a talent. Apparently, I give good divorce. I shouldn’t be too surprised. All of my life people have misconstrued my passive amiability for maturity and inner strength. So my friends and family expected me to deal well with the disappointment, and then praised me for my positive outlook. But, so you’re not confused, that’s bullshit. I saved my sadness for when I was alone. I’d fall on the ground sobbing. Sobbing so loud and ridiculous, it sounded fake. I denied myself sleep to remain numb. Divorce sucked for me too.
People want a simple explanation for why things ended — something they can point to, maybe so they can avoid our failure. “Well, I won’t do that.” But like all divorces, it started with marriage and high hopes. Melissa and I met in college. We liked each other and rounded it up to something more. We got married days after she graduated.
After college, I was an adequate high school teacher, barely making a living wage. I also struggled as a writer who avoided household responsibilities to bury myself in projects no one would publish. We turned to pawn shops to keep the lights on. Melissa was chronically underemployed and unaffectionate. She’d stay out late with friends to avoid spending time with me. Ultimately, I felt lonely, unloved, and unable to provide, while she felt trapped.
We went to marriage counseling, which turned into separation counseling. Our long-haired hippie therapist, with his silk shirt and good intentions, surprised me by not taking my side. Melissa was adamant. “I want out,” she would say. The counselor’s response was far too accepting, “Okay then.”
“That’s it?” I said, astounded. “She wants out and we’re done?” The counselor, intrigued by my stubbornness, said, “Why do you want to stay in this marriage?” “Because I love her,” I said. The words felt true, kind of. “The problem is,” he said, “you think you can do something to save this marriage. You can’t.”
I can’t save this marriage? If I wasn’t going to do it, who was? I took on the victim role. I wanted to be happily married, and I was alone in my desire. This led me to my first baby step: to acknowledge the divorce was happening. That first step was painful and sudden. The second step took 1,500 miles and the entire Beatles catalog.
I needed time to process, which was impossible while living in the office and sleeping on a couch. My ex asked if she could do anything. “Give me a week to take a road trip,” I said. She agreed. While I was gone, she would move out. I’d eventually return to a house that was a little emptier. My daughter would spend fewer nights with me, and I’d have to find a way to be okay with that.
I’ve lived in Texas my whole life, so a road trip anywhere felt like an adventure. I planned a visit to St. Louis to see my friend Jeff. For a road trip, you need good music. I decided to listen to every Beatles album. I thought there must be some wisdom John, Paul, George and Ringo could impart on the road. They would be my traveling buddies.
I didn’t get far on my first day. The Beatles were still early in their career, so this part of the trip was filled with blissful denial: “She Loves You,” “I Feel Fine,” “All My Loving,” and “It Won’t Be Long.” Sugar-coated pop songs, all enabling my denial. I fantasized that months or years down the road, Melissa would figure out she was wrong, come back to me and we could be a family again.
The next day, I was in Kansas. I made the mistake of skipping ahead to the White Album. Listening to “Revolution 9” while driving in the wastelands of Kansas, I didn’t need to worry about having a nervous breakdown, because it was already happening. This insane medley, this collage of sound effects, ghosts of laughter, breaking glass, and gunfire, reinforced a world that didn’t make sense, didn’t harmonize and was indifferent to my suffering. I gripped the steering wheel, stared straight ahead and tried to quiet the voices that whispered, “You fail at everything you love.” All the saccharin pop of Beatlemania from the previous day had spoiled and congealed into a deranged mess.
What if I returned from this trip an even bigger mess than before? What if I couldn’t raise my daughter on my own? I had no answers. By the time I was on the Rubber Soul album, I found the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri. I stayed for three days. I didn’t watch television. I didn’t read. I didn’t do anything. This was depression at its most debilitating.
The only thing I had the energy for was writing. I wrote like I was in a haze, half-asleep. I wrote because it was habit. I wrote an unfinished story about a small town where no one could leave — and I failed to see the connection. With every word I typed, I convinced myself Melissa wouldn’t have left me if I had become a successful writer.
I then drove to St. Louis, where I stayed with Jeff for two days. At the time, Jeff’s girlfriend was moving in, and I helped them move. You’d think it’d be annoying to see two people in love while I was going through my divorce, but it was good to see that connections were still possible. I saw in them an inexplicable bond Melissa and I never had. I realized love was not just something in a song.
That night, I built a fort out of the moving boxes and hid there. In my fort, I had a moment of clarity while listening to “Let It Be”: It’s never about the divorce, it’s the narrative. I was always led to believe in one story, my life with Melissa. But that wasn’t the life I was going to live anymore. I couldn’t see the next chapter and I needed to let it be, to give up. There would be an answer.
This was my second baby step, to realize both Melissa and I were unhappy together, undeniably unhappy. She was the one who had the courage to admit it and act on it. I wasn’t the victim. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and believe in our mutual right to something better. I left my box fort at 4 a.m., wrote a note to Jeff thanking them for their hospitality and I drove straight home. I was running on little sleep, but buzzing with a sense of purpose. I missed my daughter. And I had paperwork to file. A lot of paperwork.
Five years later, I’m married again. My wife likes to joke that my past marriage made me a better husband. She says I’m already trained. Did you know every one of the Beatles went through a divorce? It was like we were all too young and confused to figure things out the first time. Now, with my wife, I have the sense of coherence. I see her, not just the commitment. And heck, she loves spending time with me. She’s my Yoko, in a good way.
I’m no longer teaching. I left the classroom to become a full-time writer, a process that also took a lot of baby steps, and this time, Bob Dylan.
This essay was originally part of the live personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales), performed at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, Texas, on November 6, 2012. The theme of the show was “Baby Steps.”
The essay also appeared in HuffPost.