Neither of us being in the mood for the frenetic end-of-year partying for which Manhattan is justly famed, a friend and I decided to spend the last few days of 1993 at Ananda Ashram in upstate New York.
It was stunningly beautiful in that snow-blanketed part of the world, and I was immensely grateful for this brief respite. You see, after years of trying every damn thing to make my marriage work, I had finally left my partner of fourteen years. All I carried away with me were my clothes, some furniture, a precious collection of books and music, and the invisible festering wounds of what felt like a major failure.
Ours had been an old-fashioned marriage in its practical aspect: he had enjoyed playing the role of wily businessman, while I had easily slipped into the role of scatterbrained artiste. By convincing me I was lousy at handling money, he had assumed total control over our joint finances. I had dutifully handed him every one of my pay checks, and all our assets were in his name. His mother—an avaricious and embittered philistine—colluded with him. As his extraordinary good looks and surface charm began to pall, I could no longer hide from the wide swathe of deviousness that marred his character. Better to be alone, I realized, even as my own horizons spiralled into the mystical, than to remain in so farcical a marriage.
I told my friend Robin that I had neither a bank account nor a credit card, both of which I would need in order to break free of my marriage. The following Saturday, she escorted me to Citibank on Sixth Avenue, hovering over me like a guardian angel as I went through the motions of opening my first checking account. My knees were shaking hard—for I knew that while this single act of defiance signaled a fresh start, it would also open up a whole new can of worms. As the chorus of that terrific country rock song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
“I’d rather go to prison than give you one cent,” my husband said grimly, when, on the verge of leaving him, I asked for a small portion of our marital assets. Nothing I said would change his mind. Though New York divorce law was clear—each half of a divorcing couple is entitled to fifty percent of marital assets—my problem was that Big Apple lawyers cost big money. Adding salt to my wounds, the contingency law which allows a divorce lawyer to take a percentage of a settlement had just been rescinded.
To keep from jumping out the window, I dwelt on how extraordinarily kind and generous he had been to me in our early years. No, I reminded myself, he was not intrinsically a bad guy; just congenitally unable to investigate his own gaping faults.
Instinct coupled with bitter experience warned me I’d gain nothing by fighting him. Still, I consulted a few lawyers. Every one of them asked for thousands of dollars upfront—money I did not have. Finally a friend sent me to a tough but compassionate lesbian lawyer. “My advice is to cut loose,” was her terse advice. “You’ll never pin this rascal down. Fight him in court, and you’ll lose everything, including your sanity.” I took her advice, and began life as a single, staying afloat by freelancing as an administrative temp on Wall Street and in the law firms of Manhattan.