Recently, when I dropped off my daughters at their father's house, he mentioned that he was cleaning out his basement for a remodeling project. Maybe there was something I would want? He listed objects from our 20 years of life together: the humidifier we once used, boxes of our daughters' clothes, a dollhouse, an office chair. I was standing on the threshold of the suburban Baltimore split-level that used to be ours. I had a view of the living room, where a painting of an oak tree had once hung over the fireplace. Framed Charlie Hebdo covers hung there now. The elephantine couches we bought months before we separated flanked a glass coffee table that he bought later. The original table now stands in my living room, a mile away. If marriage is a division of labor, divorce is a division of things. When I moved out, my ex-husband kept the toaster, and I took the blender. We split the wedding porcelain in half. In the four years since, we've filled in the blanks on our walls, completed our sets, replaced what was missing. No, thanks, I said about the humidifier, no to the dollhouse—no, no, no. He paused. "And there's the green trunk," he said.

I was 20 years old when I met my ex-husband, on my junior year abroad in Grenoble, France. An American friend was dating a French student at the university, and they decided to set us up. The four of us went to a dance party at the Bastille, the fortress that overlooks Grenoble. It turned out that this French boy I'd been set up with didn't dance, and he couldn't stand techno music, but we sat together, talking, when I took a break from bouncing around with the others. He was thin as a whippet, handsome, with long hair and brown eyes, precise in his movements, unlike me, who hurried and stumbled and broke things. After the party, we all went to my friend's apartment. I made chocolate chip cookies with baking soda bought at a pharmacy and a chocolate bar pounded into chips. He ate half the plate. Over the following weeks, we courted each other on hikes up the Bastille, stretching them longer and longer to the next summit. I snuck him into the apartment I rented, past my landlady's peephole—there were no boys allowed—and we stayed up all night talking. His English was tentative, so we spoke only French.

Two months later, we were living together in his one-room studio with a corner kitchen and a bed he'd built on stilts, a desk and chair tucked underneath. We had to learn right away to bridge our differences, and of these there were many. He'd been raised in a low-income banlieue by unmarried, atheist, activist parents. I'd been raised in the Sacramento suburbs by Irish Catholics—my mother is a former nun. He studied computer science and didn't like reading. I studied literature and spent half my time in imaginary worlds. He loved meat. I was a vegetarian. He had a barbed sense of humor, and I could be sensitive. I hummed with anxiety; he flowed with calm.

Looking back, I find it amazing how quickly we learned to coexist. We'd cook a pan of mushrooms and another pan of pork lardons to mix into our separate plates of ravioles with cream. While he coded on his computer, I read a novel. When we visited the Grande Chartreuse monastery, I went to the museum while he walked the trails outside. He softened his humor, and I took his jokes less seriously. Of course, we drove each other crazy at times, him with his pickiness, and me with my messiness. But it worked. And we had fun together. Weekends, we hiked the peaks that ringed Grenoble, like the Dent de Crolles, a molar-shaped mountain. We lay in the grass, eating hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise. We learned to cross-country ski, went on weekend trips to visit his family and to Provence. He would drive and I would read, my feet on the dash of his tiny Supercinq car.

All relationships are an attempt to understand another person, and when that other person speaks another language and comes from another culture, the challenge increases. Our differences were inevitable and obvious and, in many ways, defined us. The friction kept things alive and interesting, or at least that's how I thought of it. We were long distance for almost two years while I finished my degree in California. We saw each other every few months, spent fortunes on phone calls, exchanged long letters in French. Then I went back to Grenoble. I enrolled in a master's program at the university and taught English while he worked on his PhD. We moved to an 18th-century building with long, cloudy windows and a dark staircase that smelled like a church. His handiness and practicality transformed our apartment. We drove to his grandparents' house in the country and came back with a truckload of furniture that he sanded and refinished: a beautiful old oak bed; a sideboard made new with white porcelain knobs; a table and chairs, lopsided with age, that he righted again. At the Sunday market, we bought bolts of colorful cotton that he sewed into curtains, a lampshade, a canopy for our bed.

In 1998, we got married. At our small wedding in Sacramento, the ceremony alternated between English and French. After, I danced le rock 'n' roll with my mother-in-law. My brother-in-law developed a passion for Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and my father-in-law became a near expert on the diversion of rivers in California. That fall, I applied to graduate programs in creative writing. When I was accepted at Johns Hopkins, we packed up our apartment on the rue Gabriel Péri and headed to Baltimore. We assumed that we would go back to France someday. We would hopscotch the two countries. We would have children. We would find a house that he could remodel. We would spend the rest of our lives together. Some of these things came true.

Even if I felt that I could talk about why my marriage ended, I wouldn't know what to say. Maybe we were too young when we met. Maybe that friction we cultivated became a liability. Maybe I spent too much time reading and he spent too much time coding. Maybe we grew into our differences. Although the decision felt unavoidable at the time, and I see no other possible outcome from here, I've spent these past four years managing grief. Memories stab me out of nowhere. The Sunday mornings in our house in Baltimore with him making crepes for the children while I waited for the coffee to brew. Standing in a warehouse, choosing the right gray for the tile he'd lay in the kitchen. Those summer vacations in France, where we stayed with his family and rented houses in Brittany and the Alps. That summit we climbed with our elder daughter on his back, pointing out marmots in the rocks. The swarm of bats that came down on his father and me as we biked Belle Isle at sunset. His grandfather feeding our younger daughter a strawberry in his garden.

Now, I stood on the threshold of my ex-husband's house and faced the question of the green trunk. We'd shipped it from Grenoble when we moved to Baltimore, filled with photographs, old passports, our letters from our two years apart, other belongings that I didn't remember. We'd never opened it since. Neither of us had mentioned it when I moved out. The last time the trunk had been open was in our apartment in Grenoble. Something filled me suddenly, something stronger than grief, more like panic. "I can just take it," I said. "I have room in my attic." I thought he would help me load the trunk into my car. I'd get someone to help me carry it into my house, up the stairs, to the attic. It could remain closed. But he shook his head. There were things in the trunk, he said, that he would want too. Of course there were. Our futures are separate; our past is the same. "Okay," I said, the panic easing. How do people do this? I guess that some morning when our daughters are at school, we'll meet at his house. We'll carry the trunk out of the basement. We'll kneel on either side, open the lid, see what's in there and try to divide our past.

The Myth of the Nice Girl Jane Delury is the author of the new novel The Balcony, published by Little, Brown and Company.


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