When I first glimpsed Murdina at a party, the word that came to mind was grand. Tall and curvy, with massive jewelry, she was confident yet unintimidating. In her charming New Zealand accent, she complimented my hair, and soon we were talking about her divorce, the boyfriend she saw once every few weeks, and the fact that she had never gotten around to having children. I told her I felt no urge, either.

She was 49. I was 29 and had just moved back home to Tallahassee with my boyfriend. Paul had given me plenty of reasons to leave, like the time he grabbed my arm hard in the middle of an argument, or the time he called me stupid. Still, he was my first love—and I couldn't bring myself to end the relationship. Instead, I started spending less time with him and more with Murdina.

Sundays, I'd meet her for brunch after my morning run, and she'd be waiting at our favorite table. She'd tell me about her ex-husband, for whom she'd emigrated to Florida (when she said his name, George, she scrunched her nose like she'd smelled something bad), and her job as head of a state government agency. I'd tell her about whatever race I was training for. Murdina was kind but sharp-tongued: Piss her off, and you might become the "festering carbuncle" or "Narcissistic Nancy." When I told her about Paul's controlling behavior, she named him TD—short for tiny dick—which diminished his power over me the next time he raised his voice.

One night Paul didn't come home until 4 A.M. The next day I called Murdina and asked, "Can I come stay with you?"

A night became eight months. We turned her former garage into a bedroom and decorated it with elephant-patterned curtains. Lying in bed, I'd clutch Murdina's 20-pound tortoiseshell cat to my chest and cry. The next morning, over breakfast, Murdina would remind me, "That man has the emotional intelligence of a frozen pea."

Our life together began to follow a comfortable pattern. Before work we'd have coffee with her neighbor Ed, an octogenarian who mowed his lawn in cowboy boots. Then we'd climb into the Blue Beast, her ancient Chevrolet Cavalier, and she'd drop me off at my job as a copywriter. Saturdays, she'd take me to lunch with her friends, most of them college professors or CEOs she'd met during their midlife divorces. Soon they were counseling me on my "mini divorce." When I called Paul an a-hole, they laughed, assuring me, "You'll meet another a-hole."

When I turned 30 and Murdina 50, we celebrated our "80th" birthday with the large social group we'd cultivated. In a gold Badgley Mischka dress, standing beside Murdina, I felt like I actually glowed. I'd had close friendships before, but this was different. Murdina was more stable and self-aware than my younger friends, and without spouses or children, we'd had time to invest in each other. She'd confessed that her feelings toward me were initially maternal, but that she'd soon realized she just enjoyed my company. It was like we were in one of those "Boston marriages" I'd learned about in American lit: two 19th-century women who lived together and supported each other, financially and emotionally, without a man.

As the months passed, I thought less and less about Paul and more about myself. About a year after I left Murdina's, I met Maroun, who was respectful, doting and fun. Even Murdina agreed—after careful scrutiny—that he was "a gem." I asked her to be the maid of honor at our wedding.

It was Murdina, after all, who had taught me what I wanted in a marriage.

Elizabeth Kelsey is writing a memoir about her cross-cultural marriage.


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