On September 12, 2001, the phone rang. The voice on the other end was instantly recognizable in the way only the voices of people with whom we are intimately familiar are. The deep voice with the Canadian accent had called to tell me that he was gratified to see the twin towers fall, an event that occurred only fifteen miles away from where I was living at that time, and perhaps two or three miles south of where I was living when the Canadian and I met. For someone who had spent much of her life in and around New York City, it was pure chance that I didn’t know anyone who died that day, however some of my friends did, and I’d been watching the news with apprehension.
A few weeks earlier, I met a group of friends at the Brooklyn Brewery. The husband of one asked if I wanted to be fixed up with a fireman. His wife, a Wasp, or rather a Wasc, from Connecticut laughed, “He’s a nice Irish boy from Queens. All his childhood friends are firemen.”
Mentally, I went through the list of people I knew who worked downtown. “No, he lost his job a few months ago. I’m pretty sure her company is in a building a few blocks east. There was an old flame from high school who was a cook at Windows on the World, but the last time I saw him was years ago. Surely, he’s moved on. In any case, it was morning.” I phoned people I knew from college and they phoned me. Someone had the same name as one of our classmates. Was it? It wasn’t. I felt better, then I felt bad about feeling better. Maybe it wasn’t our classmate, but surely she was someone else’s. Where the Canadian saw an abstract symbol of a country he hated, I saw individuals.
On September 12, I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture on everything the government of the United States had done wrong in its history, nor would it have been the first time he delivered that particular harangue. As I listened in silence, hoping a lack of response would shorten his tirade, I thought about how right I was to walk out on him. Even if every word of what he said was correct, his timing, why he needed to say it to me of all people on that day of all days, said little about U.S. politics and volumes about his emotional state. For several years, I’d been trying to get him to give me a divorce. I didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer to sue for it, so as long as he refused, he was still, nominally at least, my husband.
Shortly after we were married, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know if I told you, but I’m not exactly a fan of the United States.”
I shrugged. He hadn’t told me, but I could have guessed. Certainly, he had made negative comments about the U.S. during the year or so that we dated before our marriage. Most of his criticisms were identical to those of my friends, everything from slavery to contemporary consumerism and mindless popular culture and they could have been uttered by any of those people who met at the Brooklyn Brewery that day. In fact, his comments were often less incisive because he had less knowledge and no personal stake in it. I’d heard those things so many times starting in my early childhood, I probably could have recited them in my sleep. So, when my new lover from Canada said these things, I thought nothing of it. He wasn’t a fan of the United States. Why should he be? I was born here. It’s the hand I was dealt. In fact, that his complaints about the U.S. often echoed my own implied to me a level of agreement and, perhaps, compatibility. We were both atheists, both somewhere left of center on the political spectrum. His opinions didn’t surprise me at all.
We had many long discussions in the period shortly before our marriage. One, of course, was where to live. Would I first try living in Quebec City while he finished his master’s degree? Afterwards, we could perhaps try living in the U.S. or elsewhere in Canada if we liked. But, of course, I answered.
It didn’t take long to find out that “I’m not exactly a fan” was more than an understatement. In the months before moving, other Americans who had lived abroad told me that one of the first things I should do upon arriving in my new country was to seek out other Americans. I didn’t feel so American that I expected Canada to be alienating. “Trust us,” they said. “Even in Canada there will be times when you’ll want to talk to another American.” It was not something I would have thought of on my own. My husband, however, did. Before I even mentioned it, he said to me that he didn’t want me associating with other Americans. Against my better judgement, and against the judgement of people with relevant experience, both Americans who had lived abroad and immigrants living in the United States, I did what he said. He had never lived outside of Canada.
This prohibition even extended to other American wives of his own childhood friends. By a twist of fate, an old friend of his had not only married an American, not only another Jersey girl, but a woman from a town adjacent to the one in which I had lived. At a party thrown by another person, Jean*, who had come alone while his wife stayed home watching the kids, turned to us and said, “My wife said that you should feel free to call anytime you like. Your husband has our number.” Yes, my husband did, but I didn’t. Several times afterwards, I asked him for it. This was before cell phones were commonplace and the answer was always, I’ll look it up for you later. He never did and I never met Jean’s wife even though I suggested inviting them over to dinner.
He would frequently tell me that I was a “brainwashed American.” As an American I had no right to an opinion on a wide variety of topics. He made fun of my “typical American family”, with a loud, overweight mother, a meek father and a brother-in-law who watched sports, which is especially laughable since my husband probably watched more sports than most men I’d dated, and, even though my friends tease me about the number of foreign men I date, most have been American.
My ex-husband had been severely neglected as a child. He grew up in extreme poverty with schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father. The strong Canadian safety net could mitigate the poverty, but not the emotional abuse. The first time I gave him a Christmas present, he burst into tears because he hadn’t received one since he was seven years old. Nor had he received birthdays presents. He announced many surprises after our marriage. Another one was that birthday celebrations were not permitted, ostensibly because he didn’t believe in them.
(I was actually going someplace in particular with this, but it’s turning out to be really long and I’ll have to finish it some other time.)
* As a matter of course, I change everyone’s names.