“Committed is an unfurling of [Elizabeth] Gilbert’s profound anxiety about reÃ«ntering a legally binding arrangement that she does not really believe in. All this ambivalence, expressed in her high-drama prose, can be a lot to handle. (One generally doesn’t indulge another person’s emotional processing at this length unless the jabbering is likely to conclude with sex.)” -Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, Jan. 11, 2010.
Here I am again, alone in the world, like a newborn baby coated in an amniotic layer of guilt. When I started writing this book, I thought it was going to be about the children that I was finally-finally!-going to have with my second husband, to whom this book is dedicated even though we’re no longer together. That’s right, I’m a divorcée again. I am the person that, deep within myself, hidden in the bottom-most, darkest, dustiest corner of my heart, I never wished to become, and yet became-twice. Despite all my best efforts to avoid the fate I seem to have been given due to some kind of unpleasant birthright-I am American, after all, and we do get divorced an awful lot-I have become the person you, if you have at least one cynical bone in your body, may have imagined I would become while reading unfavorable reviews of my last book.
As I sit here writing this, my editor still thinks that I’m writing about babies. She is blissfully unaware of my life, since my now ex-husband and I decided to steal away to Argentina soon after he was granted the U.S. resident status that only our matrimony could procure. She sits in her ivory-colored corner office in Manhattan while I slough off every layer of my dignity through sweat in a house surrounded by tall trees whose names I still can’t pronounce, eaten away by exotic but harmless insects who seem to be extracting the very essence of my happiness as they prod their way into my pores.
I am alone, though my soon-to-be ex-husband is just in the next room playing Wii. He, too, is alone. I’m not so consumed by my own unhappiness that I can’t imagine what his unhappiness must be like. But as I watch him amble around in front of the television like a mime having a seizure, I can’t help but wonder if he understands my unhappiness. I begin to ask myself whether he is truly unhappy or just suspended in some kind of safe bubble, floating around in air so noxious with my unhappiness that he wouldn’t be able to breathe, so he enclosed himself in this somber state to carry out his days until I get on my plane back to America, never to return, unless I decide that for the fourth installment of my memoir, I’m going to fly down here to win him back.
I didn’t plan on writing this book, or the previous one, for that matter. Or the one before that. But this story must be told. It is a story of how a woman entered into a legally binding contract with someone she met worlds away, only because she desired to live with him in the U.S. Her home. Not his home. He made the sacrifice to flee his homeland for me. To come to America because I was afraid that if I did not live in it, America would, like that medicine man who at first didn’t recognize me when I returned to see him in India or wherever it was, cease to recognize me, cease to know of my relevance in their lives, cease to see hordes of their fellow man clutching one of my books on a crowded subway train-holding it close to them like a small, beloved dog. Coming back to America with my now ex-husband really felt like the moment the medicine man did finally recognize me: surviving driving your car off a bridge into a lake. Coming back to America after that quixotic and (at least financially) successful quest for myself was all that.
The irony is that, back in the bustling capital of the world, the pulsating nucleus of the publishing industry, a place with yoga on every corner where I felt I was my most alive self, I actually saw that I was-imperceptibly to everyone but me-driving myself off a bridge. I was trying to enjoy a new life with my second husband while secretly plotting how I might subject our lives to something book-length. Meanwhile, I was inside a doomed car of my own making, foot pressing on the gas so gently yet unmistakably, as if my demise was an innocent creature that had to be slowly coaxed into my life or else it would grow afraid and run away, and we’d have to start all over again. But in reality, the bridge was closer than I thought. The only way to avoid my fate was to turn the car around and drive home, then drive past the house, go to the airport, and get on a plane to somewhere I’d never been. I asked my husband to come with me, not realizing that he was the reason I wanted to jump off a bridge, figuratively speaking, in the first place.
Or at least, I thought he was. But it’s never that simple.
It started with a notion that I had nothing to write about. I’d heard married writers tell me this, that once they got hitched they returned to their desks and found that matrimony was like the sound of crickets rubbing their legs together in the trees outside my house here in Argentina. Not that clichéd idea of crickets-as-vapidity-tumbleweed blowing in the wind-but crickets as deafening monotone, crushing imagination with their every knee-knock. But what was actually causing the sound? Was it the writers rubbing their legs together, obsessing over each other, their marriage, as if it were a career or a child? Or was it something more complex-the writer rubbing up against the fear that her best years were behind her, that marriage was closing the lid on the Pandora’s box that could be her life, and seemed, from this vantage point, to have been her life up until the exchange of vows (Pandora’s box transformed into a coffin)? Or was it the writer rubbing up against the sound of Jonathan Franzen ridiculing his under-published ex-wife at a dinner table full of publishing giants? Or was it just the sound that the Internet made when it traveled to the writer’s head, distracting her for hours and hours, yet so beloved to her that she would rather blame her spouse on her downfall than it?
Such questions consumed me for weeks, or 373 book pages. I was driving myself closer to the guardrail of the bridge with every sentence I wrote, not realizing that I was also getting closer and closer to publishable victory. When my husband was at work I wandered the house reading The Four Agreements, trying to make at least two agreements with myself. Right before my husband came home I’d lock myself in my office and pretend I’d been there all day and was so engrossed in what I was working on that I couldn’t be disturbed. This had an interesting effect, because I actually would become engrossed, and would only feel that I was finished with my work as soon as I heard my husband express his first snore of the night.
This is how we lived. Meanwhile, friends would always say I was “glowing.” The truth was that the heat in Argentina coupled with their anticipation of us having a child was so scorching that my face may have appeared red. It certainly wasn’t from makeup, because I stopped wearing any after 9/11. And it wasn’t from yoga, because I found that after I got married, I became yogically paralyzed. When I felt I needed to exercise I would take the subway to a 24-hour gym after my husband had gone to bed and ride the elliptical machine while reading a copy of Vogue from 2004, the only magazine the gym had. I would be so tired when I returned, so dazed and yet buzzed in my four-a.m. body, that I would read in an armchair, thinking I could just stay up until morning, then sleep until long after my husband had left for work. I’d fall asleep around 5, but I’m a very light sleeper, so I always woke up when he did. He would walk by me in the morning and smile-I’d open one eye just a sliver to read his face, pretending to be asleep-and I would start the day with the delicious idea that we were very happy and I was just a very ambitious author doing what she needed to do to get into the next book and then get out of it!
Remember in one of my other books when I talk about sitting at a table with a kitchen knife, no food or cutting board in sight, if you catch my drift? Well, that happened again, only this time I was trying to kill myself with exercise, sleep deprivation and the endless-scroll function on Tumblr, or anything else Internet-based that could get me through the daylight hours and into the night, when I’d start writing. Sometimes I’d spend hours organizing my inbox and changing the “Fetch Mail” setting back and forth between “Once a minute” to “Once a day,” each decision naturally driven by opposing philosophies. But when I’d set it to “Once a day,” I would just end up going to the application once a minute and clicking the “Get Mail” button. One time I did this and an e-mail came through with the subject: PLEASE TO YOUR ATTENTION MADAM. It was from a deposed emperor of Argentina, and he was offering me the sum of $11 million. I knew a scam when I saw one (hello, ashram!), but the e-mail sparked something so thrilling in my head, it was like how a junkie must feel when he waits weeks to get that next hit and finally, after weeks of agony and misery and mystery and saving up lots of money and wondering if he’s going to even make it to that next moment of ecstasy, that delightful moment of opiate-infused nirvana, thinking that his life is either completely over or may be about to really, really start for the first time in his life, he gets it.
I got it.
So we moved to Argentina to live like deposed emperors, surrounded by fine things because I was determined to drain my net worth as motivation to keep writing and publishing new work. I was secure in the 16-book contract I had with my publisher, but I was not secure in the ideas that would lead me to fulfill the contract. I had not yet realized that anything I wrote would be published. That if I was walking with a pen and tripped and fell and in breaking my fall, ended up scrawling something on the floor, it would be optioned by a Hollywood director. I thought that a change of scenery would help me relax, see my husband in a new light, re-prioritize my life and help me get back to being a yogi and a better person. The reality is that I locked myself in a new office while my husband conducted training seminars for his company via the Internet from our new kitchen, his co-workers and superiors becoming increasingly annoyed that he insisted on working remotely from another hemisphere so that he try to match the rate at which my royalties were being deposited into my bank account.
It wasn’t that I had come to resent my husband or anything like that. It was that I had come to resent myself, or rather, the parts of myself that could not fit onto the pages of a book. It was a long, arduous process that had started in my old office in New York and ended in my new one, here, today, as I write this introduction to a book so dear to me it’s as if it’s my child, like my real, actual child, not an adopted child, which my previous books seem to me now. At some point the stack of paper that this book has become was just a thin pile, like a handful of utility bills, and I would stare at it in misery, pulled down to the depths of my sadness by the hands of some menacing cluster of brain cells determined to torture me. Then I would catch a bit of myself in the reflection of my laptop screen and let out a sound that was something between a scoff and a groan. It wasn’t because all I could see was my nose, my least favorite feature. But it may have been because I had condensed my entire worth into the shape and size of my nose and the sentiment I felt towards it.
When I looked in the actual mirror I would sigh deeply as if into a breathalyzer and try to imagine Julia Roberts. In those first days in Argentina, I could see her in the vague shape of my smile, if I could force one upon my face. But soon my brain had no capacity for such glimmers of pleasant delusion, and I began subjecting not only the four sad walls of my office to my fitful state, but also my Tumblr followers and my husband.
He walked out on me after watching me squeeze a mango still in its skin with one fist, the pulp and juice splattering slowly onto the kitchen floor between where we stood. Of course, he ended up coming back, and we will live together for several more weeks as we finalize our schism. But the sound of the front door closing behind him after the mango incident seemed to me the sound of a gun going off, and after washing the remnants of the mango carcass off my hands, I sat down to write this introduction, glancing over at that wonderful pile that I recognized for the first time as an entire publishable book that you are about to read. First I stopped by the bathroom with my laptop to give myself a smile in that beautiful mirror surrounded by light bulbs. Finally! I didn’t see an actress playing me on the big screen at all. I saw me: me as a child, me as a teenager, me. Free. Not resurrected yet, but bound to come back to life soon. Then I turned the bathroom light off, climbed into the bathtub with my computer, drew the shower curtain across, and took pictures of myself with my laptop’s built-in camera, eager to capture footage of this ghost before she disappeared forever.
Liz Colville loves a memoir.