Separation During Isolation is an essay by Marcello Di Cintio. It is part of Transmission, CBC Books’ original writing series reflecting on life during COVID-19. Read more works from Transmission here.
I spent the first weeks of the pandemic separating from my wife of 19 years.
I told M I’d found somewhere else to live in the middle of February. The news didn’t surprise her. We hadn’t been happy for a long time and knew we had reached the end. I didn’t know, of course, our upheaval would coincide with a global crisis. The pandemic has slathered a layer of profound oddness to an already disorienting time. My discombobulation has merged with general virus-borne unease. Thanks to coronavirus, everyone feels anxious and untethered. Not just me.
A week after I announced my intention to leave, M and I met with a counsellor who advised M and I write up a “parenting plan” detailing how we will share the raising of our 10-year-old son. We agreed on everything. We moved on to the who-gets-what conversation. I dreaded this and braced for a quarrel but, again, we didn’t argue at all. M showed only kindness, and allowed me to claim almost everything I needed to set up my new home. Our bed, our couch, the pots and pans we received as a wedding present. I took them all without debate. M bought some used furniture and a new mattress online. Since she owns the only car between the two of us, M offered to take me shopping for groceries to stock my kitchen.
M’s generosity did not surprise me. She is this way. But the utter lack of acrimony between us during our last coupled days took me aback. I felt we’ve spent years fighting about everything. Now, at the end, we found ourselves completely in tune. I felt grateful for this, and I thanked her over and over. But a part of me — the part of me I am least proud of, the unkind part, the part M won’t miss — resented this unexpected harmony. Why only now that it is too late do we finally align?
My discombobulation has merged with general virus-borne unease.
The pandemic upended my professional life. My new book, scheduled to come out this fall, has been pushed to sometime in 2021. “There’s no point publishing books, at least physical ones, into this world,” my publisher wrote in an email. He hadn’t finished editing the second draft yet, and without his notes I couldn’t work on the third. He apologized for the delay. “I just need to figure out how to move through the next few weeks as a bookseller, publisher, father. It’s quite a different world.”
Instead of writing, I packed my life into boxes. I found a stack of letters and cards from M, given in happier times. They seemed foreign, as if coming from someone else’s life. They swell with fun and flirtation and optimism for our future life together. I can’t remember when we stopped feeling this way. Sifting through those letters feels like archeology. They are the pottery shards of our relationship. The letters and cards bear witness to who we once were. I didn’t know what I should do with these things. No desire for erasure or catharsis compelled me to discard them.
As I put the letters away I realized, with considerable shame, that M received far fewer such letters from me.
On the night before I moved out, M and I decided to drink the bottle of 1997 Cristal champagne we’d received as a wedding present 14 years earlier. There was something poetic, we agreed, about drinking our wedding champagne on the last day of our marriage. But once we took a sip we realized the champagne had soured. Too much time had passed. There was something poetic about this, too.
A crew of friends helped me move, even though everyone knew they should’ve been isolating themselves rather than lugging my dusty furniture in and out of a van. Though I despise moving, I found myself disappointed we finished so quickly. I knew weeks would pass before I’d gather with my friends again. Now I know I’ll have to wait months. The reward of pizza and beer I promised will be postponed until the late spring or early summer. Or maybe the fall.
There was something poetic, we agreed, about drinking our wedding champagne on the last day of our marriage.
M helped with the move, too. Just the two of us remained once my friends left. We chatted for a while about how I should arrange the living room and my kitchen cabinets, both avoiding that last moment. “I guess this is it,” I eventually said. “We are doing the right thing, aren’t we?” She nodded. We hugged for the first time in ages and perhaps the last time ever. We both cried a little. Then she went back to what was, until a few hours earlier, our home. I stood astride the bare walls and boxes and waited for sadness to surge. It never did. I went straight to bed, even though it was still light out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a conversation I had a few years ago with Palestinian writer Asmaa Al-Ghoul. Asmaa’s second marriage fell apart just before the 2014 war on Gaza. Asmaa told me about mourning her personal loss in the midst of the communal trauma. “I felt like all the funerals in Gaza were not just for the people who died in the war, but for my own wounds,” she said. Asmaa diluted her singular grief in the wash of Gaza’s shared suffering. In a strange and perverse way, the terror of the assault aided her recovery. “The sadness was bigger than me,” she said. “I forgot all the things inside me.”
Certainly the daily horror of war trumps the quiet, creeping unease over COVID-19, even as the death toll rises. I don’t share Asmaa’s wounds — which is a good thing because I doubt I share her strength. But both Asmaa and I found our personal pain cooling in the shadow of a greater affliction.
Asmaa lives in France now. I sent her a message telling her she’d been on my mind and that I’d separated from my wife. She left me a voice message: “Even if it is our decision, we leave with a broken heart,” she said. “I don’t know if it is the right words to say, but it is a good time to do a separation because there is something bigger than anything.” She paused to sigh. “So the big sadness has stolen your small sadness. I think this is good somehow. I hope you are okay, and everything is okay around you.”
The big sadness emanated outward from my cellphone and computer screen. I should have spent more of those first isolated days with books I’ve long neglected. After all, I’d just strained my back heaving boxes of them from my last house to this one. The least I could do is read some. Instead, I wallowed in social media. I found little comfort there. Nothing diluted my unease. As I read about people struggling with loneliness, or about connecting with loved ones while staying physically apart, I couldn’t help but see everything as a metaphor for my failed marriage.
I couldn’t help but see everything as a metaphor for my failed marriage.
I tried to focus instead on the breezier posts and stories. I read endless updates about toilet paper, homeschooling advice, and independent bookstores that deliver. I cracked wise about pants-less video conferences and the Canada Revenue Agency’s hold music, and confessed my lack of interest in both jigsaw puzzles and sourdough starters. The writer Charlotte Gill asked her Twitter followers for photos of their home workspaces. The tidiness of my new office embarrassed me. I explained my neatness by commenting that I’d just moved in.
The response was the closest I came to announcing my separation online, something I briefly considered. I even composed a Facebook update in my head, but I didn’t want to disrespect M’s and our son’s privacy. I’ve always considered such social media exhibitionism tactless, anyway. Still, I was surprised how hard this compulsion was to resist. Part of me wanted to raise my own flag over everyone else’s pandemic angst. I wanted everyone to know my last few weeks have been especially difficult. Would I want to publicly announce my crumbled marriage if the world was normal?
My digital friends and followers might not know about my separation, but social media itself is well aware. My first tentative glance at the Facebook Dating app tipped my hand to the algorithms. Now I am forced to scroll past ads urging me to sign up for multitudes of online dating services. Fitness Singles, Uniformed Singles and Honest Women Looking For Honest Men. A site called Browse Singles captured the coronavirus zeitgeist best. Their ad featured a “hard-working registered nurse with a silly sense of humour” clad in blue scrubs with a stethoscope draped over her bosom. Health professional is the new sexy.
Ironies abound. One of the main reasons our marriage ended is because M and I stopped spending time together. Now, due to social distancing rules and the fact that our son is splitting time between our two houses, M is the only other person I can responsibly spend time with. Suddenly all we have is each other. I haven’t visited with my friends or the rest of my family in weeks, but I see M nearly every other day. We share meals in each other’s houses. I made her roasted chicken and black bean soup. She made me chicken curry and chocolate chip cookies. These last few weeks represent the longest we’ve gone without finding something to argue about. M stiffened a little when I told her I was writing this essay, but we are getting along.
Nothing breeds civility like an enforced quarantine.
I told a friend about this sudden détente. He, like Asmaa, mused that a global pandemic might be the ideal time to get separated. After all, no one wants to let petty squabbles push away the only other adult they can interact with. Nothing breeds civility like an enforced quarantine. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’d continue exchanging barbs with M if I had others to hang out with. Or maybe M and I already fought all our battles. We’ve grown tired of the animus.
I disagree, though, with the notion our separation was well-timed. I wanted the end of my 19-year relationship to mark the beginning of something else. Something better. In spite of all the anxiety that comes with ending things, I felt optimistic. The pandemic delayed the start and dampened my hope. I sit stalled on a launching pad. Everyone else waits for their familiar lives to return. I wait for a new one to begin.
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of four books, including Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, and Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense which won the W. O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize. Di Cintio’s writing can also be found in the International New York Times, Afar and Canadian Geographic. Di Cintio’s book about the secret lives of taxi drivers will be published next year, pandemic permitting.
Transmission is a new series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19.
Transmission is part of the Art Uncontained initiative from CBC Arts. Art Uncontained offers inspiration for audiences and support to the Canadian artistic community in these unprecedented times.