The story continues to unfold. What began as a short post has become something more: good therapy. I’m still piecing this together, so if you happen to read it now be certain that it will be expanding.
This diptych was made by my dear friend Terrence, the image on the left from my wedding on October 27, 2012, the one on the right from Horn Island the summer of 2017. I could be two entirely different human beings, and I am. I see myself on the left and see a stranger looking back at me. I’m 40 pounds heavier, I’m working all the time, I’m sunlight deprived and stressed about how we are going to pay for this wedding, how we are going to make our mortgage with all these expenses.
I see myself on my wedding day. I am smiling hard, trying to be on, I’m exhausted by all the Martha Stewart stylists primping and prepping and photographers spinning around. I understand why people hold such strong emotion around their wedding day, the concentration on you, that fleeting feeling of being important, the star for just a day.
Stars are temporal. Like these photos, like my marriage, like all of life…but we sell it hard. We sell that wedding day, that promise and hope of a love eternal. A love that will carry you through until your dying day…that the last person you see on this earth is the one holding your hand as they slip on the wedding ring. I thought I saw through these industry lies, I was incredibly cynical having helped some of the wealthiest, most entitled people on earth get married, competing with frenemies for who could be more lavish and more often than not marrying for money.
I see my future ex-husband sitting on the floor as I enter the room. It is 1993 and I am entering into my final semester at the Memphis College of Art, now shuttered. I had recently returned from a semester exchange with the now equally shuttered San Francisco Art Institute, so I did not know this young man who was in his second semester. The students were striking over recent announcements that some beloved instructors were receiving pay cuts or being excused entirely. A new president had come into power at the college in 1991 and was attempting to reduce costs, despite the fact that they already were discriminating against women by paying them almost half of their male counterparts. The same president would ultimately lead to the downfall of the university by taking those savings and buying ridiculously overpriced properties to expand the campus. My activism would make his life miserable that final semester, enough so that he walked out on my senior presentation. My instructor and mentor, Fred Burton, came up to me afterward with a big smile and shook my hand, “Welcome to the asshole club!” A compliment indeed.
I do a double-take at the young man sitting. His head is shaved and he is terribly cute. We would eventually meet, but I was in a rather complicated 2-year relationship with a grad student at the time, a brilliant man who taught me how to think and write critically. We would invite the young man for dinner one night, the night where I first felt a spark. Before the semester ended I would have a rather acrimonious breakup with the grad student, who would invite all our mutual friends over for a performance art ritual where he burned my hair in effigy. That summer he would invite me to a poetry reading. Thinking this was a kind gesture of reconciliation, it actually turned out to be a spoken-word throttling of me, not entirely undeserved. His new friends giggling and looking back at me while he dropped poetry, “You dare say our relationship mirrors the heterosexual paradigm? I taught you what heterosexual paradigm means!” Little did he know just how close to this paradigm my next relationship would be. One that spanned a move from Memphis to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, NY from Brooklyn to Cold Spring, NY where we bought our first home, commuting into the city an hour and half trip each way.
I married for love, at least that’s what I believed. Somehow, despite my years of witnessing the happily-ever-after myth the wedding industry propagated, I came to believe that my own marriage meant something greater. Here we were, two men who had worked in an industry that discriminated against us for years, finally, legally able to marry. But in retrospect I can’t tell if I was actually happy about us getting married or simply excited about the possibility of being surrounded by our friends and family from these past 20 years together. It really was a beautiful day in Cold Spring, NY. The almost overwhelming love emanating from all the people in that little chapel on the river, all focused on our union, knowing how long we had been waiting for this to be something more than just a ritual, but a legally binding document declaring our devotion.
My parents were there along with my brother and his girlfriend. My father gave a toast that night that brought tears to many eyes. They had taken my ex in from the very beginning, loving him and encouraging him as he were their own child. He came from a very strict Church of Christ family, thus not a single one of them came to our wedding. It wasn’t unexpected, but we had been rebuilding that relationship the last 10 years, flying down to Florida to spend every Thanksgiving with his large, extended family. And yet it often felt like a one-way relationship, we felt like we were the ones putting all the effort into it. We had to fly there, rent a car and get a hotel room as we were not allowed to share a bedroom. We were obliged to edit ourselves so as not to offend. And when the time came for our wedding there would be no reciprocation, not even a card or a phone call.
And yet all these years later, his mother and sister still reach out to me on my birthday and other holidays. They are truly kind people, and I honestly care about them. I understood the power of faith, having come out of the Baptist church which I had attended obsessively from age 10-14 with the hopes of curing my queerness. I cannot condemn his family in the same way as I have felt condemned, because this is how they were socialized. Growing up in a more secular humanist environment, my parents did not attend church, but felt that my own attendance wasn’t harmful so they let me explore. Lordy what a pious, prayerful child I became, but despite two baptisms, attending Sunday night as well as Wednesday night church, I could not defeat my nature. The older I got the more the cracks began to show in my faith, as well as the unfortunate actions of some terrible hypocrites at church. By the age of fifteen I considered myself an atheist, much to unspoken relief of my parents.
Two years after the wedding I would be packing our house by myself for a week, sobbing uncontrollably, sifting through 22 years together while realizing I no longer knew this man at all or what he was capable of. We had sold our house and had to be out in two weeks, but my ex had a previous speaking engagement in Europe and then decided to meet his new young lover there and add a couple days to his trip so they could have more time together despite our tight deadline to be moved out. I knew about the lover, and tentatively gave my permission, but didn’t know it was serious. We were about to close on a new house that my ex insisted he wanted...reassuring me we wouldn't be buying this house if he didn't want to be with me.
What he didn't know was that I already knew his lover was secretly going to meet him at a huge industry event in Guatemala a day after they returned from Europe, one I was originally going to attend but was too busy packing our house. He was going to fly home, spend the night and hop on a plane the next day while I continued to pack. The night he returned I revealed what I knew. He cried and promised over and over that nobody would know his lover was there, but two days later a truly despicable colleague (frankly, one that he secretly hated) posted several Instagram photos of him and his lover being quite openly intimate at the party. I texted him the photos along with "I want a divorce."
I’m smiling in many of my wedding photos, some sincerely, some not. For years we had carefully curated this posh existence on social media, so it was fascinating that it would ultimately be our downfall. I still wanted to believe in those polished images, that we were still this successful power couple that build a business and a brand in NYC from nothing. Neither of us came from money, but thankfully in San Francisco I managed to bluff my way into a decent graphic design job after years of toiling in various copy shops doing desktop publishing. I was able to cover our rent as well as his college tuition so he could complete his degree while he also worked in various flower shops that gave him skills that would ultimately change our lives.
After a few odd jobs he began working at Ixia, the famous floral design studio in the Castro district. He was hired for grunt work but eventually convinced them to let him do some floral design. He would later begin working for Maria, a wonderful woman (our own Anna Madrigal) who expressed this beautiful bohemian Californian aesthetic in her floral design. She became a kind of mother figure to him, and through her he met Roe, a woman who designed hats in NYC. She would one day become the link to a level of success we never imagined.
When we moved to NYC we had $3000 saved between the two of us. I continued working remotely for my old design studio while he worked at various flower shops. One day after a frustrating day at work he told me that he wanted to start his own floral design business. I was concerned but I also knew he was capable, so I agreed and we began to build a brand.
We really didn’t understand how crazy our aspirations were, most of the people we knew in the industry either came from wealth or had some capital to work with. We couldn’t even get a loan then, but we could sure put on the trappings of privilege…enough to convince successively more wealthy people to believe in our brand. He bought the clothing he needed to present as ‘money’ to the wealthier engaged couples he courted. I had a rudimentary digital camera and the design skills to create our website, business cards, portfolio etc. We looked legitimate, at least on the surface.
During this time, Roe, our hat designing friend, had passed along our portfolio to her connections at Martha Stewart. Shortly afterward we received word that they were very interested in us. My ex was beyond ecstatic. He had dreamed of having his work in her magazine for ages, indeed part of our motivation for moving to NYC as opportunities like this were limited in San Francisco. Meetings were arranged and he was given his first big break in the industry. Our tiny little studio apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was littered with flowers as we didn’t have a studio yet. He created an array of gorgeous floral arrangements that we stored in our moldy bathtub. On the way to the photo shoot he decided to stop at the flower market in Manhattan just in case he needed more when he got to the shoot. While inside the vehicle was towed away, he called me absolutely in a panic. He had to be at the shoot soon and all his work was now heading to the impound. Miraculously he was able to get the car out and to the shoot right on time. The story was published and everything changed. Brides began calling.
Still broke, we rented a seedy basement studio across the street from the Hell's Angels on the Lower East Side. It was a shithole, but we gussied it up to our best ability. Each wedding we wrangled was funded by the previous one, we had no savings and if one had fallen through during those years we would have been wiped out. We had only done a few weddings in that space when we decided it was too much of a liability, brides-to-be were not impressed and my ex began avoiding meeting them there.
He got another story in the next issue of Martha Stewart, along with an invitation to be on her television show. His dream was coming true. The theme would be “cascading bouquets” which were apparently making a comeback. Once again the apartment was filled with flowers as was our moldy tub. Roe, the woman who had set all this in motion asked my ex if she could help with the shoot. Unbeknownst to her, when he did his first photo shoot for Martha one of the producers had cattily dismissed Roe as an annoying old hippy who was always trying to get her work in the magazine. Thus, he refused to let Roe participate and she was deeply hurt by this. She would never speak to him again.
That morning we packed arrangements into our car and traveled north to her studio at Turkey Hill. Upon arrival we met Martha and she was absolutely thrilled with the work, as was the producer of the segment, a 30-something woman with her ponytail tightly bound. I watched as Martha tested my ex on his floral knowledge, he passed with flying colors. Martha turned her head but did not look the producer in the eyes. She barked, “Go get my flower book.” I saw a brief flash of panic on the producers face and she ran off, returning with a large, bound book. Again, without looking at her, she snapped, “Not that one!” An even more panicked expression and she ran off again, this time successfully bringing the right book.
Watching Martha show her portfolio of floral design to my ex was a fascinating thing. Martha is known for her imperious tone, but here she really was wanting to not just impress Matthew with her work, but to remind him that she could do anything and do it better. It was a power play, and my ex recognized this and absolutely gave her what she insisted on from all her staff: flattery and deference.
We had lunch with Martha and met another gay couple that was shooting that day with her. They had a ceramics business and their beautiful work was gaining recognition. They shot their segment before ours, so we got to watch from the control room. At one point Martha was doing her usual commercial break lead out where she addresses the camera while the talent either continues to pretend to work or gaze adoringly at Martha. Not thinking, one of the guys glanced at the camera as she performed her lines. The producer yelled cut and Martha sighed and said they needed to do it again. Keeping her eyes locked on the camera, Martha leaned over a bit to the poor man and hissed, “Don’t ever look at the camera unless I say so.” Like her producer earlier, his face went white and he did as he was told.
Thankfully my ex did not make the same mistake, and the story they shot wound up becoming his first of many cover stories for her magazine as well as multiple appearances on her show.
While building our empire, I was also building my own career in between. Our last year in San Francisco I worked on an animated short after hours at the design firm in Berkeley where I commuted each day. I used the short to teach myself After Effects and other animation programs, as I was feeling less and less fulfilled by print design work. The film went on to do decently as various film festivals but nothing remarkable came of it.
Initially I was doing websites for fellow weddings planners and others in the industry, then I became involved with Reel Sweet Betty, a filmmaking collective in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I honed my skills in animation doing titles and effects for our short films.
I would work at animation studios during the day and do our weddings graphics (table cards, signage, etc.) at night and on weekends, as well as the gruntwork of setting up the weddings during those formative years. It was exhausting, but the results were real. Somehow we were going to make it in NYC, these two white trash kids from the South who had reinvented themselves.
It was a magical time, opportunities just seemed to keep presenting themselves.
Once we saved enough money, we rented our first storefront in Lower East Side on Allen Street and renovated it into a lovely little flower shop. We would then move to a much better space, then ultimately to a 5000 square foot storefront in Chelsea costing us $50,000 in renovations and $10,000 a month in rent. It was 2007 and we thought we were
Before my ex left for that fateful trip to Europe with his lover, I had discovered all his ulterior plans because of an email error one of our employees was having. Our server posted all the recent emails to everyone in a list with headers, and there were several between my ex and his new lover. My heart bottomed, I was literally reading about their intention to be together forever, how much in love they were, how they were going to deal with me ("...Jack will at least have some security"), despite the fact that we were literally in the middle of buying a new house we really couldn't afford.
As he was gearing up to leave I began asking him questions: are you sure you haven't told anyone (he had, almost all our industry friends), are you sure you want to get this house, are you sure there won't be anyone else at his upcoming event? I was practically giving it away, but he was so distracted, so busy anticipating his meeting with his lover that he took no notice. He left and I sank to floor sobbing with the weight of his blatant lies upon me.
Ironically, an acquaintance stopped me on the street the next day to tell me that Martha Stewart had reposted our wedding photos on our 2 year anniversary. "You two are SO IN LOVE! It makes me sick!" she said as I forced a smile.
It wasn't enough that he lied to my face repeatedly that night. He was annoyed I was asking questions that he didn't realize I already had the answers to. Later he would lie to our friends as if his affair was my fault, said I had "pressured" him into an open relationship, so deeply disingenous that I couldn't believe what this man was capable of saying or doing to justify his actions, this man I thought I knew for 22 years. What I had said, years before, was that since I was the only man he had ever been with, if he needed to explore his sexuality I couldn't deny him that, particularly since I had been with others before him. I felt guilty that he never got to sow his wild oats. So eventually he did.
When we first got together we did have a rather awkward 3-way with an old lover of mine in 1995, our first year in San Francisco, and it so stressed out my ex that I didn't push it again. The next time we would have such a situation was in 2000, shortly after moving to NYC. He had been flirting with a delivery boy at the flower shop where he worked, so he decided this was his opportunity to take me up on my offer. My stipulations were that he not bring this guy back to our apartment and that I got to have my own dalliance, as I was tired of him lording my past experience against me. So I went to Rehobeth beach with a lesbian friend and hooked up with this sweet man who restores old trains. My ex did in fact bring his lover back to our home despite the rules, but his evening with this guy did not go well. I met my own affair one more time when he happened to be in NYC, but that also did not go well. My ex and I bonded over this failure, and we were strongly reunited again as a couple. A year or so after this affair I did have one night where I got very very drunk with a good friend, a married ostensibly straight man who gave me a blowjob. I did not reciprocate. I told my ex the first thing the next day and he was very angry as he had every right to be. I would not let it happen again. Boy, did he use this singular event to his advantage.
Shortly after our wedding he started going to a German sex worker for massage, which I somehow doubt he ever mentioned when later justifying his actions to our friends. Yet I had allowed him this. When he finally revealed his lover, I allowed him this affair as well because it was part of my original offer. He reassured me it was just a curiosity, he showed me the nude photos he was receiving from him. He was sexy indeed, but what I noticed most was how long a scroll it took him to get to that photo. Scrolling and scrolling, I could see the length of their exchanges. I asked if he would forward one of the nude photos to me as a souvenir, which he did.
This wouldn’t be his first betrayal of his new lover, particularly given our last hour of intimacy before parting forever. You see, lying had become very easy for him, because he had to do it every day with his clients whom he resented for their privilege, yet yearned for their power. We spoke of these things often, as this was before he went through the Martha whirlwind, when we would laugh about how well he had managed to pull the wool over such privileged eyes. I remember an evening with him and our mutual friends M and R, another married couple. M was like my ex, ruthless, willing to do or say whatever it takes to get up that ladder. That evening two arrogant narcissists told both their partners that we lacked the cutthroat ambition to make it in the big apple.
And yet I was carrying us financially at the end. My animation work was the only thing keeping a roof over our head because of his terrible business decisions. If you think he just jumped ship because he "couldn't help falling in love", believe me...the private island and yacht his lover's wealthy parents owned all sealed the deal. Had this boy been any other struggling industry wannabe, he would have been a flash in the pain. The boy, an equally ambitious up and coming caterer in the industry, knew exactly what he was doing...love bombed my ex and sent nude selfies, one of which I still have after he forwarded it to me. Both certainly had ulterior motives...literally within a month of their affair there was a photo of the two of them with Martha. I was frankly amazed at how fast this kid fucked his way into that inner circle. I don't even have a photo with Martha despite all the times I was there prepping for a photo or video shoot. I didn't care for these things, because I was there for my husband and for the business and brand we had built together, not for self promotion. Besides, Martha is honestly an awful human being who berated her female producers and had a staff absolutely terrified of her. She could have cared less that our wedding had been in her magazine only two years prior. The perfect role model for a ambitious narcissist and his new, equally Machiavellian partner.
And yet they are perfect for each other. They deserve each other.
I would later hear from friends that he took credit for my emancipation. See, Jack’s life is better! I simply had to do what I did for the both of us. You can't help who you fall in love with. The end justifies the means. All the things his borderline eugenicist therapist said to relieve him of his guilt. When we split he immediately went into therapy, as well as couples therapy with his new partner. Our own marriage was apparently not worth the same effort.
While some of that is true, that wasn’t his original plan at all. He wanted me stuck in that new house, he wanted me to stay right where I was, trapped in amber. I would have been financially and emotionally imprisoned. That was his choice for me because that’s what he thought I needed, security above all things. I believe he thinks he did that out of some twisted love for me, but it became something else, something pitiable.
After all this happened he still went ahead and put half our savings into escrow for the new house. This was my final wakeup call. My friend Terrence said, you have to protect yourself now, because he will not. I took the rest of our savings, half of what he put on the house, and moved it where he couldn't lay hands on it. I left him to deal with the mess he made. He lied to the real estate agent who was apoplectic that we canceled after escrow, said I had lost my job so he would have to reapply for the mortgage alone, knowing that the only reason we got a mortgage was because of my good credit, as his was in ruins after so many bad business decisions.
My bags were packed and on the floor, I picked them up and dropped them again…did I forget something? I was hesitating at the door. I really couldn't fathom that our 22 year relationship was over...I was terrified to leave the only life I had known for so long, like a sheep that remained in the pen despite the farmer leaving the gate wide open.
He was on his way home from Guatemala, he had called again crying, "Don't go anywhere, we can work this out." I had an hour before he was to arrive at the AirB&B we had rented as a halfway house between our old and new home.
I kept doubting myself, doubting the brutal truth in front of me. Maybe we could still work it out? I sat down defeated for a moment then decided to do one more sweep of the house to make sure I hadn't left anything critical. I ran upstairs, checked both bedrooms then paused by a tiny reading room we weren't using, I opened the door and turned on the light.
In the middle of the cozy room on a table was The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, bathed in an almost ridiculously dramatic spotlight, that familiar face of serenity on the aging cover. My father had it on his bookshelf and I would take it down as a child to stare at those eyes. I hadn't read it in years, yet automatically I picked it up and perused the first passages from The Coming of the Ship:
I burst into tears. That's what I had become. Bound in a mould. Bound by a lifestyle I did not want, bound by this pressure to be someone I was not, bound by fear and by my terrible love for him despite all I had witnessed. Pay attention to the messengers!
I went to the kitchen table, took my wedding ring off and set it on the book. I left a note, "Read the first three passages of this book, it's all you need to know."
I picked up my bags, got in the car and escaped.
Yet I cannot tarry longer.
The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.
For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.
Fain would I take with me all that is here. But how shall I?
A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings.
Alone must it seek the ether. And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.
Of all our mutual industry friends (sans the enemies he already made of our original business partner as well as our project manager), the only person who stood up for me was his once best friend who planned our wedding. You see, she too had been on the receiving end of his gossip regarding his new lover, afraid to tell me until I called her during that terrible week packing the house alone. I was sobbing, telling her all that happened, begging her to tell me what she knew, and she in turn tearfully did. She stood by me from that day on. I'm most thankful for her, as our employees and industry friends all turned away from me. Why would they side with the losing team? They certainly had more to gain financially by maintaining their relationship with my ex. He flew his lover in the day after I left and gathered the team, introducing them to his new partner in romance and business. I was erased and replaced just like that.
I hesitated to reveal any of these details after everything fell apart. I didn’t want to appear any more weak or vulnerable than I already felt, much less vindictive or bitter. I wanted my departure to be purely revelatory, a proactive embarkation to discover my authentic self. I wanted my triumphant Oprah moment…I wanted to show the world, and him, that I was stronger without him. I wanted to take the high road even though my silence absolutely benefitted him. I felt that speaking against him was feeding bad energy or would make me intolerable to the people I was getting to know. I didn’t want to become that person who never gets over their greatest heartbreak. I didn’t want to be boring and I most certainly did not want to give it any more power then was already taken. I was already damaged goods, I thought, no need to make it worse.
I wept so many of the miles I drove, but slapped on that insincere, strained smile everywhere I landed…the same smile you see on the left. One of the many things you have to decompress from is the inordinate amount of smarmy insincerity it takes to survive in certain NYC circles.
And yet each place I stopped along my journey away from him, each friend who took me in and comforted me, each new city was like a revelation. I was free. I could go anywhere, live anywhere. I felt my strength return. I discovered yoga. I met a sweet man in New Orleans who told me about the Radical Faeries living in TN and I went to find them. Here I live now on 13 acres with my amazing partner and our two dogs. I am grateful.
I went through many stages of grief in those years, rebuilding my confidence and my ability to trust again, so I can now look at these photos with a degree of fascination, with a degree of distance that helps me parse so much about the stranger I see smiling back at me. I want to tell him that it’s OK to be vulnerable and scared. It’s OK to let go, to follow your bliss in your mid-40’s, to start over. It’s also OK to be angry, to speak truth to injustice…and to be alone.
Thankfully I woke up. I will not be pitied. I made my decision. As deeply as I had loved him, I was done.
Thank the universe, thank the heavens and all creation. My life is beautiful and adventurous. I can take time off to make art or just meditate in the forest where I live. My life is also tough and heartbreaking like all lives, I still find myself mourning, I still find myself struggling to trust, struggling with difficult people in community. In these last 8 years I did hospice for both parents, my dog Bruno passed as well as one of my first lovers to suicide and my childhood best friend to cancer.
And yet I must make peace with this reality. My life is everything it wasn’t before in the safety of that projected Instagram bubble, and I no longer need to share every detail or cautiously curate via social media in order to control what others think or believe of me.
Yet here I am, sharing, all gritty and worn. Vulnerable but stronger. Wounded but wiser than before.
I share my messy truth. I share this with you.