On Tuesday afternoon People magazine ran a story about a Gisele Bündchen photo shoot in Florida. In a photo that ran with the story, the model ran her fingers through her tousled mane of hair while posing in a see-through dress on the beach. The sheer material clung to her sculpted calves, her six-pack abs, her can-you-believe-I’ve-had-two-kids breasts, all of it. She looked better at 42 than she had in her 20s when she spent a decade as the highest-paid supermodel in the world. This was a woman whose physicality resides at the rarefied intersection of genetics, effort and talent and who, after putting her own career on pause for 13 years so her ex-husband could play sportsball, was finally getting back in the saddle again.
Here, in recent weeks, was a freshly divorced Gisele posing topless in a Louis Vuitton ad, adorned mostly in a polka-dot handbag. Here was a freshly divorced Gisele going for a run in Costa Rica with her handsome “family jiujitsu instructor,” which insiders swore was completely platonic.
On Wednesday morning Tom Brady, he of the sportsball, announced he was retiring.
If you believe the theories of the online commentariat, these two events were linked. The couple’s split last year allegedly came about because Gisele wanted her husband to retire back then and Tom simply couldn’t give up the game.
Nobody but the couple knows the full story. What we do know is that Tom ultimately signed on for another season. Divorce lawyers were hired, ink was applied to papers. Then Tom’s bonus season was a bust, and Gisele posed on a beach, and maybe the quarterback came to the sobering realization of exactly how much he’d given up in order to lose to the Dallas Cowboys.
Memes circulated following Tom’s retirement announcement. In the most evocative, the football star is portrayed as John Cusack in “Say Anything,” standing under Gisele’s window with a boombox, begging her to take him back. Boy, had this doofus messed up.
But he was trying, maybe, to fix things? Note how he’d written “I love my family” under his Instagram announcement — which, like Gisele’s photo shoot, appeared to take place on a Florida beach. Note how he’d included a few images of Gisele in his Instagram stories, but subtle ones: images of Gisele from behind, with her arms slung around their children. If Brady was trying some kind of “Say Anything” move, it was of the most respectful nature.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gisele responded directly to Tom’s retirement announcement. “Wishing you only wonderful things in this new chapter of your life,” she posted.
Gisele’s posting was a message of pleasant remove, the sort of generically warm sentiments usually reserved for a graduation card signed by a distant aunt. It suggested that there would be no reunification, that the book of life cannot be read or lived backward, that Tom would be embarking on this new chapter with Gisele’s support but not with her.
Look, I am two-thirds of the way through writing this column about Tom Brady’s retirement and divorce, and even I can’t tell you why I’m following this intimate celebrity gossip. I can barely tell a quarterback from a Quarter Pounder; I have never stood on a beach in a see-through dress while a stylist aimed a box fan at my hair.
But this stratospherically famous marriage between two rich and beautiful people does seem to tell us something about relationships in general, or what it means to negotiate a whole life with another person. Whose career takes the back seat? Who agrees to sacrifice, to move to Tampa, to be the one on call when the kid is puking at school? Time is not infinite and neither is geography. You can’t have one parent walking on a runway in Milan while the other is quarterbacking in Green Bay. What does it cost to pursue your own dreams, or to try your best to make another person’s dreams your own?
Few of us can imagine what it would feel like to be as good at anything as Tom Brady is at football — a gift that borders on the divine, as if it were bestowed by God. But I think most of us can imagine what kinds of things he might have been feeling as he made an Instagram post promising not to get emotional and then getting emotional nonetheless.
He might have been thinking about how he’d gone to work for 23 painful, impossible years, building a legacy, setting an example, leaving it all out on the field, winning like nobody had ever won, and also losing, because nobody can win everything all the time. He might have been wondering who he would be now, without all of that. And he might have been thinking about how he’d given everything he had to a vocation, only to reach the end and wonder whether everything was enough or too much.