Twelve years ago, my ex-husband Michael and I got divorced. Even during our best times, we were not a cutesy couple that fed each other bites of toast or leaned in for an intimate moment while doing the dishes.
But the day we dissolved our marriage was one of our most romantic. He waited for me in front of the courthouse. His brows were heavy, but there was energy in his stance, like: Let’s get this done. He swung open the door and stood back.
Inside, a woman waved us toward the metal detector. She pointed to a stack of plastic baskets at the end of the conveyor belt, and as I handed Michael a basket, I thought of all the times we’d gone through airport security together. The way one of us would stand over the other as they crouched to re-tie their shoelaces.
We were at our best in airports. He reached back to take my hand in crowds and kissed me unexpectedly while waiting to check our luggage. He held our two passports, one on top of the other, and recounted stories he’d heard on the radio that morning. In airports, he was right there with me.
At home, I was always losing him. I’d bend down to get an onion from the refrigerator, and when I stood up, he’d be gone. It was the reason I gave when he asked how I could fall in love with someone else, if I was already in love with him. “You were never there,” I said.
Michael and I sat on a bench in the hallway outside Family Court and waited. We listened for our names to be called. We were careful not to brush arms. We were good at waiting. We’d done it for nearly a year, waiting to know what to do with each other. Yes, I loved someone else. But it was also true that we loved each other.
Sitting there next to him, I felt grateful that he was such a catch: the sort of man who lets dogs lick his ears, the sort of man who picks up an ear of corn at the picnic and uses a flimsy plastic knife to cut off kernels for his wife. I was lucky he was the one I was getting divorced from. I looked over at him, and smiled. I loved him, even though I didn’t want to keep him.
When the security guard called our names, we walked into the courtroom. The judge finished flipping through her papers, then looked down at us. We stood waiting, rows of empty wooden benches all around us.
We moved closer to each other, pressing our arms together. We looked at each other before answering each question. “Yes,” we said. Two of our fingers linked, and then we gripped each other’s hands. The judge looked back and forth between us and banged her gavel once. It was done. We walked out of the courtroom, down the dim hallway and out into the sunny day.
And then we kissed. It was like the first time, that summer we were both 24 and knew no one else in the small town where we met. We’d found what we needed in each other, and then we’d lost it. Now my heart beat wildly, and I ran my hands up over his back, under his coat. He let his hands slip down, pressing me hard against him. When we broke apart, we were smiling.
I walked him to his car. It was packed for his move to Chicago, the windows were crowded with his belongings. “You’ll be happy to know,” he said, tapping the glass, “that I bought that penguin.”
Under a folded jacket, I could see the bottoms of two black plastic feet. I laughed.
The comic book store near our house had a three-foot plastic penguin for sale, and I’d told him more than once that he couldn’t buy it. I didn’t want it sitting next to the coffee table, looking at me.
“I’m glad,” I said. He smiled, his eyes bright. And then he turned to go.
We never set eyes on each other again after that kiss. Years later, our mutual friends tell me, he married another woman. And this time, I hear he did it right.