No one told me how much work divorce is. The paperwork is horrendous: assets, expenses, appraisals, projected incomes, tax returns, escrow papers, and contracts. It feels like a full-time job – a job made more miserable when the spouse does his best to hide assets and sabotage you.
One afternoon, I was talking to Jacqueline, the director of the private elementary school that Bronte and Amory had attended. Now I was complaining to her about the arduous task of evaluating assets accumulated over twenty years.
“Well, whatever you do, you need to get that knife collection appraised,” Jacqueline said. She and her partner, Vince, had recently hosted Steve – my ex – for dinner, and he’d brought a selection of knives to show Vince, a sculptor and toolmaker.
“The knife collection?” I knew about it, but Steve had always been tight-lipped on the subject. I did know that he went to the Atlanta blade show every spring. I often saw him viewing knives online, the way some men look at porn.
“Oh my God, yes!” Jacqueline said. “The few knives he shoed Vince were showstoppers. One of them had a handle made of mastodon bone, or something equally outrageous. That collection must be worth a fortune.”
“He told me it was valued at only a few thousand dollars,” I said.
“Ha. I’ll bet he’s got single knives worth that much.”
I suddenly remembered one day, years before, when Steve was out of town and he’d called to ask me to retrieve something for him in the garage. At his direction, I opened a padlocked metal cabinet. He told me to find a file on the top shelf. But as I was looking, I spotted a wooden case of drawers and opened it.
“Well, well, what’s this?” I joked as I pulled open one felt-lined drawer after another, each displaying several knives of incredible workmanship.
“Not that! Stay out of there!” Steve was suddenly testy and agitated. He redirected my attention to the needed file and we ended our phone conversation. If I’d had an ounce of cunning, I would have taken photos of the knives while he was gone, or at least written down the combination to the padlock. I should have had them appraised while I still had the chance. But this was years before I knew what was coming.
Now I was kicking myself. I realized that Steve must have had a private credit card and at least one secret bank account, because I hadn’t seen any charges or withdrawals that could have explained all those expensive knives.
I became obsessed with the idea of finding Steve’s records of knife purchases and sales. He’d taken all his cabinets and files with him when he moved out, so there was only one option. I chose a day when Steve had dropped the kids off at school and was headed immediately back to the farm. Because we shared custody, we’d allowed each other to have access to our respective houses, in case one of the kids left something behind. A little naïve, in hindsight, but then, naïveté was my strong suit. And now I was going to be the devious, untrustworthy one.
I let myself into Steve’s house by the back door. There was a sense of shame at what I was about to do, and anger at Steve for forcing me to sink to this level. I stood in the living room and inhaled the air of a house I had no supervision over. The woodsmoke smell of frequent fires in the fireplace. The clingy odor of fried foods. The sad, mildewy fragrance of unwashed bed sheets. It broke my heart that Bronte and Amory were spending half their month living like this. And it also broke my heart that they really didn’t seem to mind. Had all those years of healthy meals, educational toys, art and music classes, handmade Halloween costumes, and fresh flowers been for nothing? Would they have been just as happy being raised by hillbillies?
I walked through the house, really seeing it for the first time. I thought back to how meticulously I’d decorated our homes – the original art, the custom-made window treatments – and realized that, although they might have been appreciated at the time, the only one who truly cared about them was me.
I wandered into the kitchen — dirty dishes and unopened mail everywhere. Counters not wiped with a lavender-scented spray, as they were every day chez Kirsten. I opened the refrigerator and surveyed the shelves of half gallon soda bottles and bacon and unhealthy leftovers.
Down the hallway, I poked my head into the bedrooms — beds unmade, clothes everywhere. In Steve’s bedroom the closet door was already open, showing hangers with plaid flannel shirts, fringed leather vests, buckskin pants. On the shelf above: cowboy hats, farmers’ hats, motorcycle helmets. The last time I’d arrived to pick up the kids I’d found Steve at the stove cooking grits in a pair of overalls. With no shirt underneath.
When I came out of my fugue state, I returned to the living room and started going through the desk drawers, looking for a file label with the word “knife” on it. Nothing. I went through the many piles of papers on top of the desk. Nothing. I found some accordion folders on a shelf near the floor and rifled through them. Nothing. And then I found a file labeled “Correspondence” and flipped through that. Inside were copies of printed emails. Emails that sounded a bit familiar. I looked at the “To” and “From” lines at the top — they were all to or from me.
He Had Been Reading My Personal Emails
It took a minute to sink in. And then I got it: Steve had been reading my personal emails, all of them. I had relied heavily on my friends, sharing each ugly, slimy detail as I negotiated my separation and divorce. He’d read every Match.com email I’d written to or received from other men. Everything.
I checked the date on the earliest email. It was dated September 17, 2006 — a year before. He’d been reading my personal email every day for at least a year. A year. I sank into the desk chair. The room was swirling a little, and I could feel the vomit rising in my throat. The idea that Steve had been privy to my every thought and emotion, that he had been spying on me so intimately for so long, made me weak with anger and humiliation.
I thought back to the year since we’d separated, how I had struggled to act civil and even kind toward Steve, just to keep him from becoming vindictive. I’d thought I was containing the situation when, once again, I was living in a fool’s paradise. I could see that my entire marriage had been built on the whims of a man who, at his core, had no sense of right or wrong.
I pulled all the emails from the folder and stuffed them in my purse. When I got home, I immediately signed onto my accounts and changed every one of my passwords. Then I drove to the office supply store and bought a locking file box. If I could do it to Steve, he’d probably already done it to me.
This article has been edited and excerpted from The Ghost Marriage (She Writes Press, 2021) by Kirsten Mickelwait. This wonderful read explores the ins & outs of a dysfunctional marriage, even from beyond the grave. Kirsten Mickelwait is a professional copywriter and editor by day and a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction by night.