real life

"The upside of divorce is getting rid of your spouse."

The upside of divorce (despite the trauma) is getting rid of your spouse. Oh, god, the relief. I know that doesn’t sound very gracious – but, let’s be honest. You separate for a reason, and mostly that reason is because being in the marriage was unbearable. When you break free, the misery of oppression magically lifts and the delirium of finally being able to suit yourself can carry you even across the ocean.

In my case, it took a couple of years to finish raising the kids but one day I walked into Brunetti’s in Carlton, spied some old friends who were off to the Umbrian Film Festival, and next thing I’m ensconced in a turret in Umbria.

It was in the wild meadows above the old villa housing my turret that, alone, I first felt joy again.

"I found his number and I called him"

And so it began. The next year, my bestie and I trooped around Europe with our suitcases rolling after us, along remote mountain roads, by tiny creeks, in rock art caves, in dry-stone gites and obscure local bars. In Croatia, she headed off and at the gate to Dubrovnik, wedged out of the ancient city by tourists packed shoulder to shoulder, I took a moment alone.

I Googled my French friend Julien, whom I’d met when we were both teenage exchange students in Indiana, USA, nearly 40 years before. We’d had a liaison under the stars at his dad’s Provencal cottage in our 20s, written for a handful of years, married our respective spouses and eventually lost touch. Under a giant tree in the boiling heat overlooking the Adriatic Sea, I found his number at the newspaper where he worked in the South of France and called him.

“Gael Jennings!!” he virtually chortled down the line. “ GAEL JENNINGS!!”

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It was a torrent. We couldn’t get our words out fast enough. We tumbled over each other, laughing, straining to hear, to add anecdote and rejoinder. He’d forgotten my Australian accent; I’d forgotten how French he was. His wife had died. Later, I would know how deep this tragedy went with him. This day, we couldn’t get off the phone.

Within hours he’d sent me a snap of him beaming at his computer with my google-searched photo on his screen; for the rest of my trip, a few tentative emails escalated to daily discussions. At home, we grew closer. His words were like poetry; his thoughts deep, perceptive, funny, silly and insightful. We revisited our shared history, our young selves, and mused on what had become of us. He was still the like-soul I had never forgotten.

Julien with Gael today

Although we were raised and now lived 17,000kms apart, we shared a common history. We’d been teenagers in the Nixon years in the cornfields of Indiana in the States. He in Noblesville, me in Decatur, an Amish town. We had watched Richard Nixon be elected President on small black and white TV screens; we were both invariably sent home from school, he for hair too long, me for skirts too short.


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We went to ‘meets’ and the Prom, were nominated for Home Coming Queen and King at our respective schools, observed with deep distaste the parochialism, racism and conservatism of the MidWest, and were blessed by the kindness of some. We first met at the end of our US year, on a 3 week bus tour for exchange students. He was frisky and very Cool. We sat together on the bus and kissed, and, embarrassingly, showed up one morning with bright red poison ivy rash all over us - just us two. We met Nixon at the White House, and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Gael and Julien on holiday

Now, with no physical touch, our small lit screens carried us into the crevices of each other’s minds and psyches. The artifice of the internet provided a shield for us to follow each other into intimate spaces. Our physicality could not derail us. We confided, trusted, explored ideas, invented stupid creatures and names; but mostly, we traversed nearly 4 decades of adulthood, lived without the other.

A year after I called him, 37 years after I had last seen him, he arrived. I saw him at the airport, and I walked to him. As we embraced, our bodies met from chest to belly. His strong heart beat and his belly rippled as he started laughing. I thought “There you are. I have found you”.

Two days later, my blind, beloved mother was rushed to hospital. Her little heart couldn’t beat strongly enough to allow her to breathe. We knew it was vigil to the end. Julien slept on the floor in her room with me, made no demands and moved softly and silently to tend to us, instinctively disappearing when privacy was best. He met and supported my daughters at this terrible time; he flirted with mum ( and she with him; she demanded a kiss on the cheek, not the hand), held her hand and gently drew her history from her when I left the room, and like the rest of us, cried when she died.

He believes it was fate that made me call that day. I believe perhaps he is my guardian angel. Whatever brought us together, I’m eternally grateful for the post-divorce euphoria that delivered me to myself, and to him.

Have you reconnected with anyone from your past?

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