Baby, I Can Wash My Car

I knew my marriage was over when I realized how dirty my car was. Cleaning the cars had always been the domain of my husband, the kind of man who makes it a weekend activity the way most of us go to the beach or brunch with friends. His car-washing kit is better stocked than a professional detailer's, and for 10 years I've enjoyed driving around in a vehicle that could be described only as much cleaner than my house.

The divorce was my idea. After years of working on our marriage despite our differences, I felt that, at 34, it was time to let go despite the awful real-estate market, my lack of current steady employment and the fact that there are certain things I have no idea how to do without my husband's help.

My husband agreed that divorce was inevitable, and we set out to make it "amicable," which we've tried our best to maintain. We are living together in our "house for sale," our last hurdle before we can break up, but we've begun building the walls between our future, separate lives.

Living together during divorce is tricky. Our two young boys continue to enjoy the mind-set of children on the verge of a big change. My older son's main concern is whether each of our two new houses will have enough Legos for him to continue re-creating the entire "Star Wars" film series in bricks. My younger son wants to make sure his new digs are amply stocked with peanut butter. As for my husband and me, our living together-but-separate is a sad shadow of our past life and a scary preview of what's to come.

The dirty car is only a small warning. Since asking for the divorce, I've faced a barrage of reminders about my own shortcomings; I have gotten so used to so many things being done for me for so long that my basic abilities have atrophied. When was the last time I shoveled the driveway? Raked leaves? Where is my passport? And why does the litter box suddenly smell?

Because he cleaned it, always. He took care of all these things, always.

As I face my new life, the one in which I will renew my own life insurance and pay my own car lease, I feel excitement at the prospect of forging my way. But the fear that I won't survive gnaws at me. My marriage was built on our filling in gaps for one another, and I'm terrified by shortcomings in my life skills.

I'm not sure what my husband is afraid of, because I can't imagine that learning to make lasagne or plan a birthday party is harder than learning to use a snow blower or maintain a good credit rating. But I do know that our collective fear is what's creating the tension minefield we're tiptoeing on every day in our house. We both get scared and angry when we are reminded of what we lack as individuals, especially when we are faced with each other's competence every day we have to live here.

Which brings me back to my dirty car. One recent Saturday, as my sons and I enjoyed our morning post-soccer-game ritual of drinking slushies on the ride home, my younger son complained that his cup was stuck to his cupholder. To my disgust, I found a whole summer's worth of slushy leftovers creating a sticky rainbow ring of filth.

When we got home, my almost-ex asked how I planned on spending the rest of my Saturday. "I'm going to clean my car," I announced. To my husband's credit, his double take was subtle, and he suggested that while I had the vacuum out he'd do his, too.

As we stood in the driveway, we laughed together as I marveled at how uncomplicated this mysterious process was. A little soap, a little Armor All, and my less-than-expert use of the hose brought my car to a state of semicleanliness—nothing like the miracle he'dhave accomplished, but certainly what I would consider clean enough.

I was embarrassed that I hadn't undertaken this on my own before, and said so. My husband laughed and said he felt the same way every time he had to make social plans for himself. This moment of shared lightness, acknowledging our fears and our reality, brought to bear something I haven't been allowing myself to face since I first said the D word so many weeks ago.

We are, in a sense, still a team because the gaps we've filled for each other were what we both needed to move on. Anger, fear and uncertainty aside, I realized that even though I will miss my husband's ability to help me survive, I willbe OK. Looking at my semiclean car, I realized that it will be OK, too.